Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review: Blackest Night #6

Blackest Night #6 (of 8)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Ivan Reis
Inkers: Oclair Albert & Joe Prado
Released: December 30, 2009

I have a strong feeling that when all of this is dead and buried, finding a cheap apartment or home in Coast City is going to be quite the easy task. After suffering the brunt of the ravages of the Sinestro Corps War, and now being the absolute epicenter for the ultimate zombie takeover of Earth, I can't imagine that anyone would ever feel safe in Coast City again. Oh, and did everyone remember that the entire city at one time had been completely annihilated by a monstrous and indestructible cyborg? Gotham City is a paradise by comparison.

Perhaps I'm missing the point to focus on something such as housing futures in the midst of total Earth decimation, but I don't think so. The sky crackles with the war of multi-colored light, shafts and beams of red, green, purple, and blue shear through the darkness, cutting through the slimy muck of the flying undead, sending the ghastly entrails spilling out onto the streets of what was once a coastal paradise. How can all of this possibly end well, even if it ends in heroic success? Even if the assorted Lantern Corps band together towards ultimate victory over the villainy of complete darkness, how can anything ever be sunshine again? How can a city survive such as this?

From it's first issue on, Blackest Night has been absolute comic book excess; the opening panels showing The Black Hand lasciviously licking the exhumed skull of Bruce Wayne; the undead Aquaman using his telepathic powers to summon a bloody shark attack; an endless succession of sharply-clawed hands held aloft with a still-beating human heart, freshly ripped from out a poor innocent by-stander, clenched in their grasps; this is a book drenched in the wet stuff of eviscerated life. It's excessive in the way comics can be excessive, in bold vivid colors, in a safe, neat, saddle-stapled package. Nestled in its bag-and-board, laying across the desk, an issue of Blackest Night looks so harmless, so innocent, like a thin perfect rectangle of inky joy. Then, inside, each page reeks with gore, violence, tears, the cries of pain, the throes of death, and the mayhem of unbridled chaos, all above the streets of the "city without fear". It's epic in it's excess, a throwback to horror comics of the 1950's and 60's. The only thing missing, really, are the covers featuring headless women and bloody ax-blades.

There is hope left for our heroes, and this issue provides one of the best moments of the whole series, as the duplicated rings of the various lantern corps seek out and find new recruits to "deputize" for the cause. We are treated to a vision of Blue Lantern Flash and Star Sapphire Wonder Woman, along with a Red Lantern Mera and Orange Lantern Lex Luthor. These are surprisingly powerful and joyful re-imaginings of these characters; iconic figures played with like toys, but with the built-in fail-safe of having these changes last only 24-hours, like Superhero-Cinderellas at a macabre fancy-dress ball. It's excess in the opposite extreme of all the gore; this is fantasy played out to it's most awe-shucks conclusion. I found myself unable to take my eyes off of the final double-page reveal of the new recruits. It's an utterly ridiculous moment, completely ludicrous, and yet so gleefully perfect and made even more so because of its ridiculousness.

For now, the task in front of these costumed heroes seems to be in stopping death itself; all-powerful, all-consuming death; the one thing that will take us all, the one thing that comes for everyone. Except, it doesn't. Superman has cheated death, as has Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and Barry Allen, and Wonder Woman, and Oliver Queen, and a seemingly endless list of A and B-list characters scattered throughout DCU continuity. For them, death was merely a temporary plot point on the road to re-boot. Even Bruce Wayne lives on, lost somewhere in time, scratching bat-symbols into cave walls. Just like Coast City, these men and women are completely destroyed, run through by the sword of editorial experimentation, or simply thrown away onto the fiery heap of couldn't-care-less. Then, their 24-hour purgatory ends, the clock strikes midnight, the carriages and horses return to pumpkins and mice, and providence shines from high above, from an office in Manhattan; lo and behold, they rise again. Superman lives! Green Lantern and Flash are "rebirthed"! Coast City is open for business! Call our agent for details on this amazing property!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Moments of the Year: Phonogram-The Singles Club #6 (of 7)

There is a year like this for all art-types, and for many of us, several years scattered throughout late teenhood and early adulthood. For me it was 1994. That was the bedsit year, the year of partial existence, the year the bedroom turned into a library and a music studio. It was the year of reading books because you wanted to not because they were on the AP curriculum reading list. It was the summer of making odd mix-tapes filled with art school British bands and indie American bands from cities next to bigger cities, like Stockton or Aberdeen. It was the summer of drawing pretentious cartoons on off-white card-stock and folding them into the plastic cassette-case of the blank TDK holding your latest masterpiece. I'd spend an entire hour carefully writing out the track list in black fine-point ink, allowing each line of impossibly small print to dry fully before moving on to the next. For a good month, every tape started out with a Suede track, most likely "My Insatiable One". That opening guitar riff sounds as if being played on strings coated with silver, and it's brittleness is daring you to get closer to your speakers, daring you to brave getting hit by the sharp flying notes. And when they didn't open the symphony, Suede would always have one or two songs present somewhere. As would Blur, something off Parklife but definitely not "Girls & Boys", because that's too easy, too expected, and "Magic America" is right better, anyways.

This is all before the internet ruined just about everything. This is when driving to a town three towns away from where you lived just to visit a record store that sold imports from Europe was just another day in your young life. You'd pile into the car with your goth friend and find yourselves on a freeway and then in some town with cafés and tree-lined streets, and then in some record store staffed by people who looked cooler than anyone you'd ever gone to school with. Then a chicano kid in an argyle sweater-vest and penny-loafers sells you some Morrissey singles out from inside a glass counter, and as you talk with him you just know that tricked out Vespa in the parking lot, with the chrome bars and endless mirrors, must be his. Your goth friend buys albums with covers that look like photocopied stills form 1930's horror movies. You both buy Pizzicato Five imports with their jewel-cases wrapped in Japanese characters. You both buy magazines, back issues of Select and handmade fanzines with pictures of skinny pale kids dressed in black leather biting each other on the necks. It's all OK and everything's alright and we feel better than you because of what's coming out of our stereos.

This is 1994 and this is before the internet ruined everything, because for all you kids out there reading this, I want you to know exactly what happened. The internet has ruined everything. That record store is gone now, and so are those glass counters with CD's and 45's with their sleeves staring back out at our young eyes, tempting us with images of a lifestyle that could be ours with the drop of a needle. Those racks of magazines are gone now, too, just about. The oversized imported rags with their Union Jacks and slangy headlines and skinny boys and girls posing in second-hand glamour and white customs stickers that read "Printed in the UK" are gone. The odd-sized, folded up, saddle-stapled, hand-numbered, hand-drawn, photocopied on goldenrod, on hot pink, on sky blue office paper fanzines are gone. The racks were filled with them, stuffed with so much weirdness and oddity and strangeness, with poems and manifestos and cartoons, with colors and ink stains and newsprint, with dog-eared dreams and wishes and hopes.

The tangible nature of music is gone. There was a time when we could hold onto music, hold an album in our hands, press play and record buttons at the same time and make a tape filled with our feelings and give that tape to a girl we liked or a boy we liked, and then fantasize about them taking it home and pressing play and understanding exactly what we are saying to them because they can hear it in the songs we chose for them. That's gone. Mixtapes are gone, replaced by downloads and pods. Fanzines are gone, replaced by blogs. And is there any point in ever having children? No, I don't know.

This is a blog, and the irony is not lost on me. This particular post on this blog is about a comic book printed and published on paper, a comic book entitled Phonogram, about youths in the modern era who still buy albums on vinyl. This particular issue of this particular comic is about one of those youths, listening to a Dexy's Midnight Runners' album whilst sat alone in his bedroom, writing out on a manual typewriter a plan for his life in the form of a pasted up homemade 'zine. As he types out his manifesto, we see it forming before our very eyes, as he pulls panels from off the pages we have just read, or tears away pages we have yet to read. It's magnificent, and though the story takes place in the not very distant past of 2006, it's really about a time long gone, and it's for those of us who miss that time dearly, and for those of us who do what we can to hold onto that which has passed away.

The image of a man in his early-twenties in the year 2006 pulling out a vinyl record to play on a turntable in a small room of his flat didn't strike me as odd until I'd read the issue a few times through. I'm of a generation that still remembers when that was the normal way of listening to music. When you bought one album at a time and listened to the hell out of it, until the grooves wore down or the plastic warped in the heat. This young man, on the surface, appears too young for that, but then age always has been just a number. He represents all modern-day archeologists holding onto the relics and artifacts of by-gone eras that were only a few decades ago, either because they lived through those times or because they wish they had. I understand this because I am this.

You see, next up, now that the tangibility of music is gone, will be film. DVD's and the like will go away shortly as technology comes around to figuring out how to get rid of them. Books on paper are already facing down the end, soon to join magazines and newspapers on the junk-pile of naïve antiquities. And soon to join these pulps and rags of gossip, news, and sport? Why, comics, of course. Already the buzz-saw of supposed progress is comic to take your long-boxes away and replace them with digital comic books you will be able to read in the palm of your hand on some sleek touch-screen device that you can also text your friends on. (We don't even talk to our friends anymore. We text them, or change our FaceBook status and hope they get the message.) And after the books fall away, then too, will the comic book stores, and with them, civilization. I've seen this happen in other peoples' lives, but now it's happening in mine.

Phonogram: The Singles Club #6 (of 7) written by Kieron Gillen, with art by Jamie McKelvie and Julia Scheele, was released on December 9, 2009 by Image Comics.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Moments of the Year: Green Lantern #43

There are times when the imagination will suffice. When the renderings in one's mind of that which is only alluded to will be stronger than anything that could be shown. This happens when the romantic leads passionately embrace and fall into each others arms, and the camera pans slowly away from them towards the curtains billowing in the breeze of an open window. This happens when the gunman raises his pistol at his victim's head, and the editor cuts us back to the establishing shot, leaving us only with the sound of the gunshot to paint us the picture of the gruesomeness inside. Or, this happens when a writer and artist decide to tell the terrifying account of a family held hostage, and do it from the blindfolded point-of-view of a child (see yesterdays MOTY: Detective Comics #858) Then there are times when the picture must be put before us, when we must be confronted with the unvarnished reality. This is Green Lantern #43.

In actuality, this is William Hand #1, or Blackest Night #-1, since the titular hero makes only a brief cameo appearance in a few flashbacks. This issue belongs to the boy who shall become the embodiment of walking death, the Black Hand. Filled with an "absolute darkness" that is believed to be possessing him, the young Hand begins to hear voices that speak to him about his greater destiny, to be the one who shall extinguish the light of all life. He starts simply enough, like many serial killers, with small animals that he then stuffs and mounts around his room and the family home. Considering the family business is a mortuary, and the animals seem to be confined to small woodland birds and game, it is viewed as a harmless and transitory fascination, one to be observed but not overly worried about. Then the family dog falls victim, and a therapist is brought in. Soon, the cosmic war between good and evil, light and dark, is brought crashing into his lap, and his odd quirks and obsessions focus sharply into a lifestyle.

Then William comes face to face with the worst of all nightmares: he falls prey to 70 years of DCU continuity. All at once, they flood him, overwhelm him, the deaths and resurrections, invasions and possessions, the editorial experiments and reboot revisionism. It is too much for anyone to bear, and under the strain, William finally understands what must be done. He must wipe the slate clean so that there may be true peace. He must become the ultimate editor-in-chief.

He starts at home, with the killing of his family, and then the taking of his own life. The moment of his suicide is displayed over two gratuitous pages, the first showing the actual instant of his brains exiting his skull. He faces us, with eyes bulging, lips parted and teeth gnashed in reflexive shock and pain. The left side of his head has blown open like a breached airplane fuselage, and out spews the viscous matter of brain and blood, cast over in the green light of the cosmic weapon he has used for the task. This is the very instant of death, the split-second fine-line separating life and the unknown. The following page shows his fall to the floor and his lifeless body lay there in a widening pool of blood, glistening like the high-polish sheen of a candied apple. For all the gore and bluster of the moment, for all the meticulous artistic detail, it is presented with no real exploitative devices; no sound effects, no exaggerative gesticulations. It is composed matter-of-factly. He shoots himself. He falls to the floor. He bleeds. It's a suicide. It needs no artificial dressing.

The banner atop this issue proclaims it as the "Prologue" to Blackest Night, and there really can be no better foreshadowing of the horror, brutality, and terrorizing mayhem that is to befall the DCU than this moment here. In an odd way, too, it is a throwback to an earlier time in comics, an ironically more innocent age before comics codes, when the medium was rife with scenes of shocking exploitation, gore, and sex. In the 1940's and '50's, it was all done out of unchecked freedom, often with a wink and tongue planted firmly in cheek. It was all a dark joke, sold in a disposable package for a dime. Today, the horror is back and the dead have risen, and they are dripping blood and eating hearts, and doing so in spectacular fashion, in bold full-spread pages, and in colors never before dreamed by the originators of the craft. It's not a joke anymore. It's modern comics storytelling, and sometimes, you just have to show the goods.

Green Lantern #43 written by Geoff Johns, with art by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy was released on July 8, 2009 by DC Comics. 
Originally reviewed on July 13, 2009. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Moments of the Year: Detective Comics #858

J.H. Williams III, in possession of an endless arsenal of artistic styles and imagination, is one of the most visually inventive artists working in comics today. Yet his most striking single page this entire year is one composed entirely in black.

Page 18 of Detective Comics #858 is pure blackness, segmented into a 12 panel grid. There are no images on the page, only the sound of hostages straining at their bonds, blindly calling out for each other from underneath their burlap hoods. There are the sounds of random movement, slow, from various directions. Panel 2 opens up to the top page bleed, it's complete emptiness stretching out into an infinite abyss. Then comes the final cries of a mother, calling the names of her two daughters, and then the sound of one single gunshot, then the dull thump of a slumping lifeless body. Panel 9 opens out to the left page bleed, it's silent emptiness slowly being intruded by the faint mirage of distant light. Suddenly, the last three panels shake and rattle with the thunder of stomping boots and the crack of gunfire, the urgent military jargon of operational rescue.

For being completely without drawn images, this is a page that so beautifully demonstrates the visual power of the comics medium, as well as its power to control and segment the readers sense of place and time. What exactly is happening in each panel? What does each sound effect correspond to, a jostled chair, a punch, the firing pin of a gun being cocked? How long does this entire scene last? How much time is represented by the blank and open panels? By segmenting the page into equal panels does that mean each represents an equal amount of time, and therefore, do the open panels represent longer, more amorphous beats?

This is a writer's page, as well, and it is to Greg Rucka's immense credit that he gives us a scene such as this, without exploitation or unnecessary dramatic affectations. He knows the confusion in our minds as we attempt to fit these pieces of noise and lettering, of wobbly and jagged word balloons, together into a coherent structure is what adds to the horror of the scene. He gives the story over to us to fill in the images in our minds, and what we come up with is all the more heartbreaking and terrifying for being kept in imagination.

I have read this page repeatedly, at differing speeds, allowing for longer or shorter pauses, allowing the lettering choices to color the inflections of my readings, and it is always a powerful and telling experience, and one that still remains sadly just out of reach. The answers to all of the questions this page poses, about time and structure, about the specifics of what is happening to the characters in the scene, are still elusive. It is a perfect interpretation of how terrifying moments in life can never be fully pieced together or understood. It is the shock, and the emotional rush that is remembered. Rucka and Williams have given us perhaps the most perfect single page example of what the comics medium can accomplish that no other medium can. They have given us a seemingly blank page and shown it to be the most difficult thing to read.

Detective Comics #858 written by Greg Rucka, with art by J.H. Williams III and color by Dave Stewart, was released on October 28, 2009 by DC comics.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Moments of the Year: Madame Xanadu #7

She is of the order of the ancient folk, and bears a name she uses not anymore, a name known by no one outside of but a few other immortals and Death, herself. To whatever world she finds herself in, she is but a "spiritualist", a tarot card reader, a parlor amusement. She is a seer, and a true mage, and virtually immortal. Above all, she is a woman with a deep compassion for life, a surprising characteristic for someone who seemingly fears not the end of her own. The woman is Madame Xanadu, and she is the hero of this story.

Madame Xanadu #7 sees our heroine in the middle of a hysterical London, besieged by the terror of a serial killer, one who will come to be known as Jack the Ripper. As she searches the streets at night for clues to stop these killings, Madame comes upon a small beggar child, a young girl in tattered apron and top hat, one with whom she is apparently acquainted with. The exchange between them is one that demonstrates the depths of compassion at the center of this magical woman, as she uses her millennia of learned experience for the simple trick of conjuring up a simple piece of fruit for the child. The beauty of this scene comes in the powerful expressions that grace this woman and child as they hunch over the torn upturned top hat; the unbridled joy and anxious anticipation on the face of the little girl is heartbreaking when one understands the poverty with which she is besotted; the serious scrunch of concentration with which Madame contorts her face an indication of the playful spirit that bubbles inside her.

This is a touchingly rending scene, and also one that is important for more than just the purpose of characterization. For, truth be told, there are other moments throughout the first six issues of Madame Xanadu that serve to show our protagonist as the sensitive and empathetic hero, notably her attempts to save a sickened and imprisoned Marie Antionette, and her rescue of a court consort from rapists during her time with the Kublai Khan. However, those moments are propelled by other factors, other variables, perhaps even slight self-consciousness and ego. This moment, in this dirty soot-covered alley in Whitechapel, with this innocent street urchin asking for help with smeared cheeks and eyes as big as dinner plates, we see a woman who has lived thousands of years without a family of her own, show us what might have been for her in some other form, in some other life. It is pure maternal tenderness.

It is one page out of hundreds, one scene out of hundreds. It is one page ensconced in an issue covered in blood and horror. It is one moment of absolute childish splendour, a showcase for the positive power adults may hold over little children; a power to dazzle, to thrill, to bring peace and happiness, and to do so with little more than a flourish of a hand, a sincere word of kindness, and a true heart filled with playfulness and love.

Madame Xanadu #7 written by Matt Wagner, with art by Amy Reeder Hadley and Richard Friend was released on January 2, 2009 by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted, collecting the first ten issues of the monthly series, was released on July 15, 2009, also by DC/Vertigo. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Moments of the Year: Final Crisis #7

I'm in LaGuardia Airport, early afternoon, awaiting my flight to California. It is January 28, 2009, and it has snowed the night before and into the morning. I've trudged through the dirty slush of Queens with a suitcase and two carry-on bags. It has been one very trying first month to the year. It is a Wednesday and even with the weather laying an inconvenient path and the luggage weighing the journey down, I made certain to find my way into a comic shoppe this morning. Now, through with the rigors of baggage check and security, nestled into a seat in the waiting area next to my boarding gate, I have time to myself amongst the density of a crowded international airport. I reach into my bag for the brown paper bag which contains this weeks haul of multi-colored pulp. The first one out, without hesitation, is Final Crisis #7. After all these months, I can't believe my good fortune to be here at this place, at this time, to read such a book. I can't think of any better place to be in that moment.

Final Crisis by writer Grant Morrison (and a plethora of artists) is not an event comic, not anymore, at least. Perhaps upon initial release, amongst the summer hype and subsequent internet maelstrom, it was an event comic, such as had been seen before, and such as we see every year now. Upon completion, standing apart from the machines of publishing and buzz, the book reveals itself for what it truly is, what Morrison intended it to be all along: an epic poem.

"The music of the spheres. The sound of the tides of the infinite, breaking on our mortal strand. And bearing a vessel. Surging on a foam of gravitons, like some new argo. Its cargo not Gods. Not monsters. But Heroes."
"And then it seemed as if the sun had risen in the West. As if the dawn was made of lightning. And the approaching thunder became the roar of a gunshot yet to be."
"In a halo of blazing light that seems to complete everything, old man passes like a dream. Like smoke. But the fire burns forever."

More so than just the language, the details of the piece are nuanced like finely balanced stanzas adhering to some form of meter that is only discernible upon multiple readings. The last issue of the Daily Planet is written by Lois Lane with photos taken by Jimmy Olsen. Artifacts of their story, of the story you are reading, are loaded into a capsule, shot off into a rocket, representing the hope of a civilization crumbling before it makes its last stand. Men dressed as Gods destroy Gods, and Gods dressed as Man destroy Man. In a decimated world where technology has been corrupted, stories once again are passed on through the oral tradition. Superman, an alien from another planet, who possesses superhuman strength, ultimately saves humanity with music. The simple etchings on a cave wall; the notes of a song, " sad, so hopeful, so brave...", beckoning out, summoning help; the words of a story told of heroes and villains, of good versus evil, are passed on to be told again and again. The final message of this final crisis is that when all else has failed, it will be our Art that will save us.

Sitting in an airport, on a plane, in a subway, in a taxi, on a train; patience straining against missed connections, long delays, lost luggage; sitting amongst travelers from all the world over, of all races and faiths, the messages of this book rang loudly that interminable snowy January day. We create and destroy, make into existence and snuff out of existence, everything around us, everyday, through the simple power of thought. We command the power to make better, to make right. We possess the power to save ourselves. "Earth Endures". Indeed.

Final Crisis #7 written by Grant Morrison, with art by Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, and Tom Nguyen, released January 28, 2009 by DC Comics. 

Friday, December 18, 2009

Review: Power Girl #7

Power Girl #7

Writers: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: Amanda Connor
Colors: Paul Mounts
Released: December 16, 2009

Vartox the Hyper-Man was introduced into Superman comics mythology in 1974, in Superman #281, created by writer Cary Bates and artist Curt Swan. The cover of that issue by artist Nick Cardy, in which Vartox lords over a bereaved Superman as he cradles a deceased Lois Lane in his arms, has now become oddly iconic. Vartox would make minor appearances throughout the next ten years fulfilling the role of Superman "frenemy" long before the tabloid coining of that term. Since no one really dies in the DCU and the potential for a good yarn lay in the crumbled up balls of bristol board found at the bottom of any waste basket, Power Girl #7 sees the return of the Hyper-Man in all his mid-1970's glory.

Oh, and what glory it be. Vartox's leather vest and brief combo paired with thigh-high boots screams disco-funk chic, and the plethora of unfettered body hair speaks of a time before metro-sexuality and man-scaping took the man out of manhood. He is walking ego and sex, but let it be known, he, too, has a heart. He cares deeply for the people of his planet, Valeron, of whom he is charged with protecting. He  is their Superman. Vartox gives us a vision of who and what Superman could be if Kal-El of Krypton let his inner-God shine forth more and he dropped the Clark Kent shackles. Throw away those fake NHS specs, ditch the facade of clumsy farm boy oaf, slide your package into some painted-on bell-bottom slacks, grow a juicy moustache, and get down with your buddy from Valeron, Supes. Brother, now they would be "two wild and crazy guys!"

And there, right there, is what makes Power Girl such an impressive and joyous book to behold. In just seven issues, it has managed to be the comic book that reminds readers what the medium and the genre can accomplish when allowed to be absurdly whimsical, and it has completely shown up all four books in the Superman-universe. This issue, #7, leaves those books in its wake. How? What? Why? Because of freedom, my friends. Power Girl demonstrates the real beauty of having a book in which things of this nature can happen; in which a super-powered Lothario from another planet can invade Earth riding an interstellar headship on a mission of love because his home planet has suffered mass sterility at the hands of Yeti pirates who set off a contraceptive bomb in a major city. Oh no!? Oh Yes! And in order to save his people from extinction, Vartox, by a stroke of luck being the last man standing with active sperm, needs to get it on and knock boots with our mighty heroine Power Girl. (Whew!)

Can you even imagine this story taking place in Supergirl or Action Comics? Not a chance. Not while those books are mired in Manchurian Candidate-style cloak-and-dagger politics and espionage. Not while the Super-verse is consumed by convoluted continuity and a cast of characters larger than the Manhattan yellow pages. The Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, why, he isn't even wearing the tights anymore. The whimsy is missing over there, so obsessed the editors and creators seem to be in grounding the world of Superman in a reality of politics and military strategy. Commander El? General Lane? General Zod? Snooze. Give me Chancellor Groovicus Mellow!

The issue has a propulsive quality that escalates the mayhem and hilarity with each page. The back-and-forth banter between PG and Vartox beats with a true comedic heart, and pounds out like the staccato rhythm of the best moments of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Even as they do battle with a deadly and indestructible creature, their distinct personalities are not lost nor buried under a quagmire of fight scene panels. It's refreshingly spry and agile, the issue feeling as though the pages are turning themselves. Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti channel the best of the Bronze Age, plying a fine layer of retro wistfulness without plodding it down with nostalgic schmaltz. They are having fun WITH these characters and these old ideas, not ridiculing them. In short, they are reveling in their own satire but without a shred of arrogance or elitism.

And how much more praise may be heaped on the shoulders of artist Amanda Connor? A paragraph summarizing her artistic powers would not be enough, and would yet, prove to verge on the ridiculously exaggerated. Rest assured, it would not be over-heated hyperbole. Her ability to express the inner workings of her characters, their thoughts and emotions, their frustration and passion, in a few wrinkled brow lines or the slight curl of a lip is astonishing. She is a director culling fine performances from her actors, who are not "Acting" on the page, but instead, behaving. They are who they are, and they listen to each other, react to what the other is saying. Connor breathes full-bloodied life into the conversations of her characters because the dialogue is happening in their faces, not just in the word balloons above their heads.

Power Girl has quietly carved out a singular and spectacular corner for itself, one seemingly undisturbed by the misguided intrusions of editors-at-large. So far, Karan Starr has been allowed to do her own thing, be her own woman, and have her own life. Will this continue? I have little faith it will. Undoubtably, soon the book will be party-crashed by Magog or Blackest Night or some such other unnecessary ancillary interlopers, and the whole thing will come tumbling down in shards of disappointment. For now, however, this is a book to cherish. The Amazing World of Power Girl, still only 20¢.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Secret Six #16

Secret Six #16

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Peter Nguyen
Inkers: Doug Hazelwood & Mark McKenna
Released: December 9, 2009

This issue opens with the calm and jovial ranting of a child molester as he narrates the rain-soaked panels that show his police caravan taking him out to the shallow graves where he buried his young victims. He's a disturbed and disgusting man in an orange jumpsuit and prison manacles, talking about having sex with children with the ease of a man talking about ex-girlfriends. Enter two members of the mercenary outfit the Secret Six, here dressed as local sheriffs, busting in to rescue the sex offender and killer, efficiently overpowering the small detail of officers assigned to escort him on this grizzly outing. So quick are our mercenary protagonists that the entire break goes down before any shots could be fired. At scenes end, the three men are stood in the rain, two of them calmly smoking, the prisoner now freed from his shackles, basking in relief as he tastes freedom once again. There are no colorful costumes. There are no hi-tech gadgets deployed. The fisticuffs are bare minimum. The rain, the mud, the scattered-shot lightning all combine to cast everything in deep shades of murky purple. This is the criminal world at its most foul, stripped of any super-villain glamour, bereft of any comic book trappings. It's just filth and a few sad, pathetic men.

Not all is as it seems, however, as we quickly learn that this jail-break has not been a rescue at all, but a kidnapping, on behalf of the bereaved father of one of the children victimized. The molester finds himself in short order, strapped to a table in a secluded warehouse somewhere, the angry and vengeful father stood over him with jagged hunting knife. There work done, the two men of the Secret Six depart, but before doing so, one imparts onto the blade-wielding father nearly step-by-step instructions on how to properly flay a human being to death. Three sad, pathetic killers become four.

If there is one message that resonates out of these first 16 issues of Secret Six, it would be one that is encapsulated cleanly in this first sequence: things only get worse. A father loses his child to a man who kidnaps, tortures and kills, and the outcome of the whole process is that it turns him into a kidnapper, torturer and killer. Nothing ever gets better. Things only get worse.

The hired-gun crew of Secret Six is rife with substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, and death. Each of the members is afflicted with some form of the above list, and they all suffer severe depression. Their conversations with each other rarely veer out from under layers of sarcasm, and moments of real emotional revelation tend to be exploited later on as weakness. They all carry with them the demons of tortured pasts. The world that surrounds them in their present offers no solace nor hope. They have been hunted by villain and hero alike, and each other when circumstances have pitted them on opposite sides. They have witnessed torture and enslavement, at times aiding in their practice. They have been the hired tools of unrepentant and unhesitant killers. They have seen the worst of humanity, and they have taken it to bed.

The second half of this issue features a scene that demonstrates the odd duality of the series, the part of the book that keeps it from sinking into depressing muck. For, make no mistake, there is a humor to the series, a dark joyousness even. As our two Six-ers, Catman and Deadshot leave the warehouse they are confronted by a teenaged witch who is determined to latch onto them. In an oddball, frat-boy attempt to shake her, they make there way into a local strip club, a club that features exotic dancers dressed up in sexed-up versions of the outfits worn by various villains of the DCU. They are the kind of cheap costumes one would find folded up in a plastic bag and sold at a Halloween pop-up store, on the rack next to "Sexy Pirate" and "Sexy Nurse". Live on stage, ogle to the gyrations of "Sexy Bane", "Sexy Mister Freeze", and most hilarious of all, "Sexy Mr. Mxyzptylyk". It's a moment that speaks of writer Gail Simone's love of the DCU, and her fearlessness at playing with the pieces of it; to acknowledge it's existence as a world these people somehow both live in and live outside of. They are alive in a world that treats their costumes and likenesses, their symbols and crests, as objects of idolatry and commerce. She has used this trick before, both in Secret Six and in Wonder Woman, and it's effective at injecting humor as well as satirical commentary.

It's telling that she employs it in this issue, as well, in a scene far removed from the grime of the opening sequence. Here, the colorful and impractical costumes of villainy are pushed to their extreme, pushed out onto a red-velvet stage, flooded by disco-lights and mirrors, displayed as objects of sexuality and farce. The murder and torture committed by the men and women who wear the costumes being parodied here is somehow reduced to spandex and fishnet. All the supposed glamour of evil becomes a ribald joke. Contrast this to the gray and purple mire of brutality, kidnap, torture and murder being committed in the name of moral relativity, by men wearing the plain and simple uniforms of legitimate law-enforcement officers, in the books opening, and the satire becomes even more biting, even more heartbreaking.

Gail Simone has managed something very special with Secret Six. She has created a book that uses the surface world of superhero comics, all of its trappings and genre clichés, to tell stories of hopelessness and fear. The characters at the center of this world, the stars of the book, are all sad and lost in their own despair and seeming inability to unfetter themselves from the worlds they have created around them. They have all given up, really. They fight, they drink, they kill, and they sit and watch the (DC)Universe go by all around them. They've become walking costumes, parodies of themselves. Live, on stage.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Blackest Night Wonder Woman #1 (of 3)

Blackest Night: Wonder Woman #1 (of 3)

Writer: Greg Rucka
Penciller: Nicola Scott
Inker(s): Prentis Rollins, Jonathan Glapion, Walden Wong, Drew Geraci
Released: December 3, 2009

I didn't hate this issue, nor did I particularly like it, and for my money, that's a pretty fitting set of criteria with which to use to conclude that something is inconsequential. As with most of the Blackest Night tie-ins, the idea is better than the execution, which is no fault to the creative teams involved, necessarily, but more to the fact that it's difficult to play a symphony with just one note. The song being attempted here? The Ballad of Max and Diana.

Now, Wonder Woman is an amazon warrior, first and foremost before being a superhero of the DCU, and as such, she has killed on the battlefield. However, her dispatch of the villainous Maxwell Lord stands out for its essentially being a public execution, witnessed by the world and used against her as a tool of propaganda, sending her into self-imposed exile, for 52 weeks, if I remember correctly. There was a trip to Nanda Parbat and some re-invention of herself as a government agent somewhere in there, as well. It's all a bit dodgy, really, and points to the ever-present problem of Princess Diana. Who is she? What is she? Stoic warrior? Ambassador of peace and love? Servant of God, or perhaps puppet of God, even? Killer or soldier willing to do what is necessary in war? Her killing of Maxwell Lord seemed to answer this last question. She was a soldier faced with only one solution, and she took it, because the greater good would be served by her doing so. Superman and Batman could mire themselves in ethical debate and attempt to shame her for what they perceived as a lapse in judgement, but the fact remained that Wonder Woman looked stronger for her act, not weaker. Let Batman throw Joker into Arkham for the ba-zillionth time, Wonder Woman was going to put a nail in a coffin, so to speak.

DC seemed ambivalent about how to deal with fallout. Should Wonder Woman feel guilty, be ashamed, or stand defiant? There immediate reaction was to have her wallow in guilt and pout with Renee Montoya in a secluded monastery, and then to renounce her ways so that she may relaunch her book, err, I mean, her life. This not a popular choice by all, as can be seen by writer Greg Rucka's comments about it in the trade collection of the weekly series 52. He is on record as believing this course of action to be a mistake. He was out-voted.

So, now, the one note samba of Blackest Night comes around to play it's tune for the Amazon princess and her Dancing with the Stars partner, Max Lord, and who should be bandleader on this, but the one and only, the inimitable Mr. Rucka. Yes, the talented Mr. Rucka, who is in charge at the moment of the best book coming out of DC, that being Detective Comics, has the unenviable task of trying to breathe life into an undead idea. By now, we know the shtick. The dead have risen and are coming after your emotion-infested heart, so try not to feel anything. (Lest it seem as though I am not a fan of Blackest Night, I should state, unequivocally, that I have thoroughly enjoyed the main book, by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis, and have been continually surprised with each issue at how they have managed to up the ante. As events go, it's no Final Crisis, but that's good, and bad...more on that some other time.) So, great concept and great writer, working with a great artist in Nicola Scott, what is my problem, huh? Why am I so down on this? Well, as I stated earlier, it's not the creative teams fault, entirely, but the one-noteness of the concept at play with ALL the tie-in books. Whereas the main book gets to lead the charge and has the entire DCU at its disposal, the tie-ins are forced into a corner: Take one hero, add undead villain who has a history with said hero, add bitter/crass/sarcastic banter, through in a few splash pages of zombie dismemberment, and call it an issue. This is Blackest Night: Batman, Blackest Night: Superman, Blackest Night: Titans, and now, unfortunately Blackest Night: Wonder Woman, to a T.

The hero? Wonder Woman. The undead villain with history? Max Lord. The crass and/or sarcastic dialogue? "All aboard the Ted Kord express, destination: brains." "Your skin's so soft! Do you loofa?"; all these lines uttered by the walking corpse of one Mr. Lord. Splash pages of dismemberment? How about a decapitation for the kids at home? So, all the bases are covered, which makes this issue a formulaic bore. What, then, rescues it from being complete drivel? Well, the fact that Mr. Rucka takes this opportunity to give us the defiant Wonder Woman, the Wonder Woman who feels no regret over the killing of Max, only over death being a necessity of war. She is a soldier who draws a ready distinction between murder exacted in cold-blood, and slaughter committed in the name of peace. How right-wing of her, because any good leftist knows that war in and of itself is a crime, right? It's all a very lovely and beautiful contradiction that is dealt with so sparingly in superhero comics. Honor, duty, the need for a strong military force in order to maintain peaceful order; these are the political struggles of humanity and should be the greater struggles of Gods, of whom, our immaculate Diana is one. So, here she is, here is that Wonder Woman...partially.

If the issue had dealt with this more directly, delved into the greater philosophical questions brought to fore by the original killing of Maxwell Lord, then perhaps this issue could have really transcended the formula. As it stands, it's really just one elongated fight scene, scattered with bits of dialogue that allude to greater ideas left unfortunately unexplored. What does it truly mean to be a warrior for peace? If Wonder Woman can so readily rationalize the killing of a tyrannical leader who is bent on world destruction, as she does with her killing of Lord, then what keeps her from busting into North Korea or Darfur? Clearly, the same rationale could be used in those situations, too, could it not? I don't know, but it sure sounds like the kind of fodder a writer could really sink their teeth into. Too bad there was a different band playing at this party, a band who only knows one song.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: Detective Comics #859

Detective Comics #859

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: J.H. Williams III
Released: November 25, 2009

It may not carry the over-used label, but make no mistake, this current story line in Detective Comics is a "Year One". The curious question, the question that intrigues the most, is exactly which character this is the origin of: Kate Kane or Batwoman? They may be one in the same, one may play the other in costume, assume the role of military brat or caped crusader, but, as with the original patriarch of the Batman family, one role dominates, and one role subjugates. This issue gives us the origin of a little girl lost and shows us the moment of that transition.

The main character in this issue, as well as in issue #858, is Kate Kane. This arc is hers and hers alone, despite the minor intrusions of her alter-ego, Batwoman, in a few pages scattered throughout. The comic is told through alternating flashbacks, the past and present being represented by two very different art styles, both breathtaking in their display of Mr. Williams's brilliant artistic range. The flashbacks are rendered in a pulpy, slightly loose style, with flatter colors and brushed inks. The pages are laid-out in a more traditional grid format, cleanly moving left to right. The present day pages, the intruding Batwoman pages, are drawn with far greater detail in a much more painterly illustrated style, and the layouts follow no conventional grid, flowing from one misshapen and jagged panel to the next. It is this structure that lends to the ironic tension of the issue, again, that this is Kate's story, and Batwoman is busting in with loud colors and complete disorder. Kate's flashbacks, the memories of years long gone, become the clearly defined spaces of story, the easily fixed path that the reader may follow. It is Kate's present, as Batwoman, that is a seeming jumbled confusion.

The story of Kate Kane in this issue concerns her discharge from West Point due to allegations of personal misconduct, namely of practicing homosexual behavior. Given the opportunity to deny these allegations and proffer them up as the misguided actions of youthful experimentation so that she may save her military career, Kate instead honors the true meaning of ethics and announces that, indeed, she is gay. Her honor and integrity may stand without reproach, but her separation from military service sends her into a confusion as to what she is to do with her life now that the only thing she ever wanted to do is so unfairly torn away from her. Without the discipline of the academy, or perhaps to spite all the years spent under the yoke of military discipline, Kate delves into a listless life as a party-girl socialite, partying hard, getting inked, vacantly attending classes in obvious states of impairment, and driving under the influence, all of this beautifully rendered in one large panel, showcasing the ability of great art to efficiently tell a story. And while the art grabs the reader, and J.H. Williams III has the power to dwarf a writer and mask the shortcomings of any script, it can not be forgotten that there is indeed a story being told here, and it is a exceedingly good story, too.

Greg Rucka has crafted a comic that feels substantive, full of blood and humanity. Kate's story is grounded and recognizable, regardless of the specifics, because her emotions are complete, her character is warm on the page; the dialogue is natural, never contrite nor forced to fit the situation. Rucka's script is full of subtle moments, of characters who say more with their facial expressions, a slump of the shoulder, a turn of the cheek; and so, ultimately, his is a script tailor-made for an artist of the caliber of Mr. Williams. This book speaks to the unified whole that may be achieved between writer and artist, and that should be a benchmark for all comics. Together, these two creators have crafted a book that feels mature, a book truly for mature readers; not because of salacious, oversexed, or blood-spattered content, the puerile likes of which are often graced with the "mature readers" disclaimer. This is a mature comic because it is a comic that feels grown-up. This is a book that shows the power of comics to portray the beauty of humanity, whether it be dressed in military whites or superhero blacks.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Review: Madame Xanadu #17

Madame Xanadu #17

Writer: Matt Wagner
Penciller: Amy Reeder Hadley
Inker: Richard Friend
Released: November 25, 2009

Magical heroes, whether they be sorcerers, wizards, or immortals bestowed with other-dimensional powers seem to exist on the fringes of modern comics universes, never playing major roles nor showing much compunction to do so. That is, unless, their magics are such that they turn them into muscular super-types with capes and tights, flying into action with fists blazing, like a certain Marvel family. But, what if one is just a spell-caster, a fortune-teller, a tarot card reader, off in the panel background wearing fishnet stockings or bow-ties, pulling rabbits out of top-hats? What then? Seemingly, their role then is to tag along with the big guns of the marquee and be at the ready with a binding spell or a portal when called upon to through out some faerie dust. When big events, uh, I mean, crises strike upon the land, count on the magicians to make a cameo in a panel or two, locked arm-in-arm in seance. Don't look for them to do much else, though. They are, apparently, too busy polishing their crystal balls.

Shame, really, when one considers the potential of these characters. They wield magic, after all. MAGIC! M-A-G-I-C. The possibilities should be endless. That is where the beauty of Madame Xanadu lay. The real magic on display here is the three-dimensionality of the character and the clever and seamless melding of the mystical and the modern.

Madame Xanadu, as written by Matt Wagner and brought to life by the art of Amy Reeder Hadley and inker Richard Friend, has shown herself to be quite the pro-active hero, never one to rest on her red velvet divan stroking delicate feline whilst lazily flipping through endless stacks of tarot cards whilst wearing the pathetic visage of disinterest. No. Never. This woman is no store-front charlatan nor two-bit parlour trickster, playing with the lives of mortals out of her own sense of immortal ennui. When she turns over a tarot card she wears an expression wrought of both worried anticipation and fevered vigilance. When she gazes into her crystal ball it is with eyes that penetrate with a pained intensity. When she mixes a potion or a tincture it is with assured meticulousness and measured urgency. Madame Xanadu is not just a mage, one gifted with mystical powers, but a woman of deep passion rooted in genuine integrity and selflessness. She is, in short, a superhero.

What is striking about this current arc of her eponymous book is how it shows the full-fledged potential of a magical hero, and how it balances the mystical aspects of the character with the modernity of the world she exists in, all through the use of so little magic, itself. Nary a spell is cast in this entire issue, and the little Latin thrown about is mostly done so, and done so humorously and pompously, by a group of well-heeled Manhattanites dabbling in the dark arts. What we are presented with is a woman who is a sly combination of private investigator, scientist, detective and spy, who also happens to possess control over magics. The perfect amalgam of this comes in a scene midway through issue #17. This scene finds our heroine perched upon rooftop, cloaked in the shadows of an urban evening, using mystical surveillance equipment, to monitor the clandestine proceedings of a satanic cult operating in the heart of the big bustling industrial city. The type of spy equipment utilized being the only real difference here between Madame Xanadu and a certain other dark knight detective I'm sure is not mere coincidence. It is all quite clever and lends the book elements of noir mystery and cold-war era spookery. The scene even ends with our heroine uttering the time-honored phrase spoken by every gumshoe worth their fedora and trench-coat: "Time to follow that money."

And follow that money she does, and there she finds the Chicago mob, stolen antiquities, and a sorceress from her past resurrected anew through the body of a besieged Upper East Side housewife, the one Betty Reynolds she was tasked with healing. It is a reunion that can only foreshadow much chaos to come. The diversity of these obstacles, the seeming unwieldy nature of the tasks before her, the questions posed that lead only to further more complex questions, all speak to the great power with which Madame Xanadu is truly endowed. For it is truly the great heroes who find themselves facing such apparent insurmountable odds. They are the ones to place themselves in positions and in roles that invite peril, all in the pursuit of truth, justice, peace, and freedom. Madame Xanadu wears no cowl, no uniform; carries with her no recognizable symbol of her abilities or powers, no icon readily available for screen-printing on t-shirts; has not the marketing department of a major conglomerate bending over backwards to place her in front of every reader or viewer; but make no mistake, she shares with her more famous super-powered brethren the exact elements that make them all superheroes. Save the magic act for children's birthday parties, and take the bow-ties and top hats to the second-hand store, because this woman is on the frontline, and she has no time for tricks.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: Batman and Robin #6

Batman and Robin #6

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Philip Tan
Inker: Jonathan Glapion
Released: November 11, 2009

Should there be a time for me to start a piece with such a harsh straightforward statement as I will begin this one, this is that time, and here is that statement: the art in this issue is an absolute mess. How utterly heartbreaking it was for me to turn each page and see another class-act Grant Morrison script turned into a collection of incongruous inking, confusing compositions, and befuddling characterization. To ponder a time when this title will find itself in a nicely bound hardcover collected edition, and to know that this atrocity of 22 pages will sit smack in the middle of such, makes me ludicrously angry, but mostly, unbelievably sad. It also makes me sincerely question if the editors and publishers truly care about putting out a great "book" or just serviceable "product". This issue is barely the latter, and only saved by the grace of the story.

This issue begins to bring many disparate pieces from the last few years of Morrison's Batman into a clearer focus, and we start to see that all of them will eventually converge, though how and to what effect are left tantalizingly broadly open. We are once again reminded of Morrison's inventive nature. There is no need for the endless revolving door of the old rogues gallery, not when Grant can give us new characters and concepts such as El Penitente, the flamboyant and seemingly indestructible matador assassin The Flamingo, and the mysteriously sensual enigma of Oberon Sexton. He even manages to make Jason Todd, a character killed years ago who should have stayed dead, matter in a way that resonates more deeply than him just being the one failed Robin in Bruce Wayne's past.

We also see how divergent Morrison can be from the status quo continuity of the greater DC Universe. This issue ends with the reveal that Bruce Wayne's body, believed to have been buried in an unmarked grave near his parents, is actually in secreted storage in the depths of Wayne Tower. This flies in the face of the current mega-event Blackest Night, which uses the desecration of Bruce's grave as the jumping off point for the story, the Black Hand using Bruce's skull as some talisman from which the Black Lantern rings are birthed. Are we to now understand that the body buried there is NOT Bruce's and that Dick Grayson fooled everyone? If so, Dick has done a masterful job of concealing this from every single hero in the DCU, including his own Robin. The issue ends with this teaser for next issue: "Next in Batman and Robin: Blackest Knight" Will this be where these seeming incongruities will start to be explained? Is this just Morrison's clever jab at a mega-event, one that seems to be supplanting his own Final Crisis of last year in importance in DC mythology? Is it both of these things and more??? Most likely, the answer to all of these questions is YES! with exclamation point. This is why people read his work. This is what makes Morrison a stand out writer in a murky superhero genre. He is fearless and the best thing for all involved is to get out of his way.

All of this richness of story is what makes the terrible failings of the art that much more unbearable. From one page to the next, and even from panel to panel on the same page, the art appears amorphous. Certain pages appear to be inked by nib, as they show clearly defined edges and fine line detail, whilst other pages seem a rushed mash-up of brushed ink and digital wash. Only one inker is credited, that being Jonathan Glapion, but the hodge-podge on display seems the work of multiple people working on several different sections madly scrambling against impending deadline. Blame should be shared by Philip Tan, as well, as often, bad inking is the result of poor pencils, as inkers attempt to cover up gaffes in proportion and perspective, or to fill-in areas not completed. That seems the case in many panels where the backgrounds appear to be inked in loosely, as though there were only the barest of pencil to define the space. The climactic fight scene appears to take place in a rock quarry or condemned construction zone, but it is never clearly defined and spatial relations are murky. Many panels deteriorate into blobs of thickly applied swathes and hashmarks. It seems much shading on many pages was left to colorist Alex Sinclair to suss out and provide, further solidifying the pretense of multiple hands on rickety deck. This is a thankless task, indeed, for the normally top-notch colorist, and I free him from all blame. Doubtless, he did what he could with the mess he was given.

What has become apparent to me over the course of the last two years is that Philip Tan is a talented penciller who is incapable of consistency, especially, it would seem, when the task at hand is a monthly book. This three issue arc is yet another example of Tan starting out strong, but then ending in a blurred mess. His first issue, if not perfect, was solid and muscular with a clear focus. The same can be said of his first issue of Final Crisis: Revelations and Green Lantern: Agent Orange. Like those works, by the end of his run, the issues had broken down, characters had become disproportioned, perspective unbalanced, the inking taken on the air of being rushed. The shocking thing to try and understand is that this should not have been an issue, considering the short nature of this arc. If over the course of only THREE issues his work breaks down this much, then perhaps his talent is best suited for one-shots and limited projects. The ability to pump out consistently solid work on a monthly basis seems to elude Tan. No shame there, as speed is not every artist's forte. The powers that be need to assign him more properly, is all.

As a reader and a fan of this title, of Grant Morrison's work, and of the characters of Batman and Robin, I would have gladly waited another month to see this issue hit stands in a far cleaner and coherent form than what made it to store shelves. Hitting shipping deadlines is, of course, of utmost importance, and no one wants late books, especially if the story beats involved are important to other books and story lines going on at the same time. This, of course, is the inherent problem with the over-reliance on continuity. It becomes more important that the books are released on time than that they be released when they are ready. This one, unfortunately, just doesn't feel ready.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Review: Madame Xanadu #16

Madame Xanadu #16

Writer: Matt Wagner
Penciller: Amy Reeder Hadley
Inker: Richard Friend
Released: October 28, 2009

This is the tale of two women.

The first is a stay-at-home mom living in the Upper East Side of New York City with her daughter and upwardly mobile sales executive husband. The year is 1957, so Betty Reynolds isn't really a stay-at-home mom, as would be her politically-correct denomination of a later era, but simply a housewife in the vernacular of her day. Her husband, too, is not yet a yuppie, but simply just a white-shirt-and-tie middle manager in Manhattan, living out the daily rituals of the so-called man's life as it played itself out in mid-century. The wives spend their days shopping beyond their means as a passive-aggressive way of one-upping husbands who spend their time consumed by careers and a new breed of lad magazine that teach them how to objectify everything in their lives, including their own wives. It is a sad world of pathetic routine filled by people who take advantage of each other all while taking each other completely for granted. The wives are not happy, the husbands only think they are happy, and everyone involved is lying and keeping secrets.

Betty Reynolds recognizes much of this, though. Over afternoon coffee with a fellow housewife-in-the-trenches, she worries that she has lost her own sense of identity outside of being some man's wife and some child's mother. She sees the monotonous and ever-deepening groove the circumstances of her life have carved out as her existence. Though it is never given voice, no doubt, she frets over missed opportunities and regrets, paths and choices not taken or made. She is caught at an odd crossroads of being possessed by the adult trappings of motherhood and wifehood, but she lives out the juvenile pleasures of shopping for high-end ultra-feminine fashion and paying for it with someone else's money. There is no identity in dependance and yet she freely surrenders her independence when it allows her to momentarily cast off the adult world responsibilities she feels trapped by. This is the foreshadowing of greater ironies to come.

As all seems a never-ending pattern of deadening monotony, Betty Reynolds' life is taken over by strange supernatural forces. She begins to experience unexplained phenomena, her body morphs in size, her facial features adjust, she begins to defy the very laws of gravity, and most disturbing and grotesque of all, she begins to spew forth various insects from her mouth, fully formed and very much alive. When her weight drastically drops and her hair begins to change color and break, and her husband and doctors deem her to need psychiatric help, she feels lost to them as well as too herself. Where to turn when everything is falling apart and no one seems to care enough to want to help? Where does one go for help with issues that cannot be explained logically and rationally? Why, you go downtown, of course.

The downtown neighborhoods of Manhattan New York have always borne the identity of being the more bohemian quarters of the city. Largely inhabited by immigrants and artists, the areas below 14th street were communities of cast-offs and fringe dwellers, bohos and beatniks, poets and painters, scuffling their way around Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Village. While today's downtown resembles a designer label strip-mall, the area in 1957 was very much the bastion of the city's avant-garde. Storefronts, tenements, and lofts were plentiful and inexpensive, and the mystique of the area kept out the well-heeled Upper Manhattanites. One of these such storefronts belongs to our heroine, Madame Xanadu, and the well-heeled Upper East Sider Betty Reynolds finds herself stood before it, a stranger in a strange land.

Madame Xanadu is the flip-side to Betty. She sits in her plush red and gold parlour surrounded by fringed drapes, shelves filled with massive leather-bound books, and the various accoutrements of the pseudosciences; crystal balls, urns and decanters filled with roots and herbs, globes and telescopes. She herself is dressed in flowing layers of black and jeweled netting, with full raven hair piled high atop her head wrapped in a headdress off of which dangle baubles and beads. Her wrists are a-jangle of bracelets and her fingers are adorned with chunky rings. Madame Xanadu is a bohemian princess on a red velvet throne ensconced in the lower kingdom of Greenwich Village.

The issue is all about these stark contrasts. The slight Asian features and jet black hair of Madame Xanadu stand in direct opposition to the WASP blondness of Betty. The crisp and clean sheen of Betty's world on the Upper East Side is diametrically opposite to the cracked pavement and ragged density of downtown. It is a segregated world, bordered by streets and subway lines, marked by differing demographics of money and ethnicity. The great humor of this situation is of course, the wonderful irony of it, that with her tarot cards and tinctures Madame Xanadu will help Betty Reynolds regain her normal, monotonous, boring rut of a life.

There is a third women involved in this tale, however, that of artist Amy Reeder Hadley. Issue #16 is brought to exuberant life by the deft hand of Ms. Hadley, back on the book after a five issue hiatus. She captures the contrasts between worlds and our two female protagonists and does so with meticulous detail and subtle humor. Nothing is missed, no period detail left wrong. We are afforded a view into a time and place that no longer exists wholly in this form, a New York only the facades of which remain today. The fashions, hairstyles, and home decor feel right and not staged, and they take their proper place as support to the characters and story. The art serves the story and the overall purpose of world-building, without overwhelming the reader by becoming a catalogue of mid-century references. Her characters are complete beings, as well, not simply types, and over the course of 11 issues, Ms. Hadley has forged a consistently solid woman in the form of Madame Xanadu, giving the titular heroine a strength sheathed in elegance and poised compassion.

Magical heroes tend not to find themselves embroiled in stories that break down into fisticuffs, their fighting spirit must show forth in other ways, and both Hadley and series writer Matt Wagner have created a character whose strength lay in guile, perseverance, and intelligence. She plies her trade to help those who are being besieged by forces beyond their control, of which there are seemingly no sensical explanations. The bohemian dressings and charlatan storefront facade downplay what is really being presented quite cleverly here, that of a woman ahead of her time. Madame Xanadu is deeply educated, fiercely independent, a small-business owner, and an immigrant success story, all wrapped in magical wears. She is the next step beyond the submissive and tread-upon housewife represented here by Betty Reynolds, who acquiesces her desires and needs to those of her husband, a man so caught up in his narcissism he fails to even recognize when his wife is changing shape and coughing up insects. Perhaps the real victory here, then, will not be for Madame Xanadu to restore Betty's life back to what it was, but to cure her and strengthen her in preparation for a new world order for women that is to come? If so, then the real story here, that of the immigrant artist, the cast-off storefront psychic rescuing the prim and conservative housewife, is not steeped in irony, but in poetic justice.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: Red Robin #5

Red Robin #5

Writer: Christopher Yost
Penciller: Ramon Bachs
Inks & Color: Guy Major
Released: October 14, 2009

If one is being honest, then one recognizes that these men are little boys lost to the world, jumping around in costumes, playing at being heroes, prolonging adolescence in as much as rock musicians or celebrities do. In fact, this view holds true for the ladies, too. The DCU is full of them. The Green Lanterns, well, they belong to a full corps, a law enforcement agency, so they are exempt on some level for they are sanctioned protectors. But Batman? Robin? If one looks at them with unflinching eye, one has no choice but to recognize how truly sad these little boys are.

Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and Tim Drake are orphans, cast into those roles by the cruel force of crime and its unceasing tide of violence. We sympathize with them because we understand their loss. They have lost parents, the safety of family, and most severely, the innocence of the youthful belief in the concept of forever has been wiped away for all of them in pre-adolescence, leaving them with terrible feelings of both abandonment and distrust of the world. These boys grow up to don costumes, to immerse themselves in a surreal world where they can hope to find some control. They see things that can not be explained logically. They are front-row observers of multi-dimensional chaos and inter-planetary crisis. They work side by side with aliens and goddesses, telepaths, shapeshifters, immortals and magicians. They witness colleagues die and then witness their resurrections. Each of them is born out of distrust and everything they encounter for the rest of their lives only reinforces this. They will spend the rest of their lives never truly trusting anyone or anything. Everything will be suspect. Everything will be in doubt.

Batman is a complete representation of this as he is the consummate detective, and detectives must never take anything at face value. Everything must be questioned. Batman being born of distrust and abandonment is perfect in that Bruce had everything that would allow him to feel trust torn away from him, so naturally, he becomes the perfect questioner, the ultimate doubter, the supreme detective. What makes him the greatest sleuth, however, makes him a hollow man, one incapable of close relations with people excepting those with similar neurosis. Enter the Boy Wonders.

For nearly all of the history of Batman he has had a boy-sidekick in the form of a Robin. Robin has acted as partner, assistant, comedic foil and phycological ballast to keep the overwhelming psychosis of Batman from floating off into the great yonder. It takes two to tango, though, and the relationship between Bat and Bird has definitely been a two-way street. Bruce originally took legal custody of Dick Grayson because he recognized himself in him; the young boy orphaned by violent crime filled with grief and pain. He understood the importance of being a mentor to this boy, directing him down a more righteous path than the one paved by vengeance. Grayson would eventually grow from boy to man, and would evolve from Robin to Nightwing, and now, in the wake of Bruce's death, to Batman. There can be nothing more right than for Dick Grayson to take up the mantle of the Bat. It is what Bruce would have wanted and what he trained him for all those years. The question then became for this new Batman, what to do about Robin.

Tim Drake was the last Robin to work under the late Bruce Wayne, and the only one to be formally adopted and take on the last name of the celebrated Gotham family. As the last Robin, he had the misfortune of having a front-row seat to the demise of his adoptive father, a long and painful descent into paranoia that culminated in his being fried to death by an evil god. (see Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis) Oh, did I mention that during all this, Bruce's biological son, Damien, born of a strange eugenics experiment perpetrated by his most deadly enemy Ra's Al Ghul was foisted on all by his mother Thalia? Yeah, because that happened, too. The arrogant test tube baby came crashing the party to take up what he saw as his rightful place alongside his real father, Batman. Tim, already feeling insecure about his place in Bruce's life, now had Damien laying claim to his job and newly adoptive father, and Damien seemed to have biology on his side. Cue deadly crisis, Superman pulling Bruce's charred body from the wreckage, and suddenly everything Drake had known was thrown away. Batman was gone, his father along with him, and then, to top this off, mankind was nearly destroyed, enslaved by the machinations of evil gods. If it's not one thing it's another, right?

What young Timothy needed at this point more than ever was to hold onto some semblance of normalcy, to fall back onto something comforting, whether that be a role or a place. He needed to be Robin again. The new Batman, Dick Grayson, had other ideas and appointed Damien as his new Robin, recognizing in Damien what Bruce had originally recognized with him, that he is a young boy who could easily be lost to a darker path if not mentored under the wing of Batman. To a fractured and beaten Tim Drake, however, this was one final crushing break. This solidified for him that he truly had lost everything in his life, that anything solid he could hold onto was gone. A lifetime surrounded by cynicism and distrust was culminating in the complete destruction of identity itself. The markers that spoke of Tim's life were gone, so his identity with them. The only thing left to do was to completely snap. So he does.

The first issue of the new series Red Robin sees our young Tim Drake sitting alone on the floor of some lonely room in Wayne Manor he has just trashed in anger after facing his replacement, Damien, wearing the Robin costume for the first time. Confronted by the physical proof of the complete destruction of everything he has known and the stark realization that he has no identity as Robin left, he does what any lost and wounded little child would do; he breaks stuff. He breaks vases and mirrors and upturns tables and as he sits in the wreckage of the room, slumped against the wall, something else breaks inside him: his mind. He utters one simple statement that will propel him on a mad journey and serve as the first arc of this new monthly title: "He's alive. Bruce is alive." And thus, Red Robin is born.

Red Robin is what happens when you kill Batman with a hand grenade, the shrapnel flies everywhere and the casualties are far-reaching. This new title, and all the other new titles that have come out of the killing of Bruce Wayne are the little pieces of debris left over, and the characters involved are the damaged and damned charged with carrying on. Young Timothy flies off in a new costume, one tainted by those who wore it before, one that has no real identity other than being worn by those of varying mental stability, so it's perfect for him. He goes off on a globe-trotting crusade to prove that Bruce is, in fact, not dead, even though he has no real evidence nor solid reason to believe this at all, other than he really, really, really needs it to be true. That, and that after years of seeing the unbelievable and illogical smoke and mirrors of what constitutes life in the DCU, he has no real reason NOT to believe Bruce is alive. Surely, stranger things have happened.

The first arc, suitably entitled "The Grail", works extremely well as both a international jet-set adventure as well as a insular character study of a young man coping with his feelings of loss, hoping he has not completely lost his mind. That he spends as much time trying to convince himself that he is not crazy as he is in searching for evidence that Bruce is alive points to the stunning dual nature that all of these men share. This mirrors quite amusingly what Bruce went through during the R.I.P. storyline. They are men going crazy to prove that what they are doing is not crazy. They are men attempting to live their lives one step ahead of insanity. In his mad rush to prove the impossible, and to prove he is not crazy in the process, he may be proving exactly that. What could possibly be more crazy than chasing non-existent evidence all around the world to prove a man is alive whom everyone saw is clearly dead?

Tim makes stops in Madrid and Toledo, Spain and in Paris, France and Berlin, Germany, but writer Christopher Yost never fully explains what evidence is spurring Tim to these specific destinations. We are never given full explanations to what he finds in these cities that points him off to the next. At the end of issue #1, Tim stands in a hotel room in Paris, half dressed in costume, staring at a world map stuck onto the wall, itself dotted with numerous push pins marking off locations he's been to or will visit. It's not explained. The evidence is never given a run-down like in a police-procedural drama. This is not that kind of story, and the details of the investigation are not what is important.

Tim is not Batman. He is no longer Robin, either. He is in a gray area of compromise and as such makes decisions and choices that cross lines, such as becoming an unwitting ally of Ra's Al Ghul's League of Assassins, who decide to help our young hero whether he likes it or not. And why? Because Ra's Al Ghul believes Tim. He believes Bruce is alive somewhere, too. An international criminal mastermind and global terrorist, a man who himself lives as an immortal having been resurrected from death many times over, has now become the only true believer Tim has in his corner. Strange bedfellows, perhaps, but the marriage is quite fitting. They are all fathers and sons in a bizarre family tree, one that snarls its way around the hearts of these men and squeezes tight.

By the end of issue #4, Tim finds himself in a cave in the desert of Iraq. Before him, etched onto the cave wall is one solitary pre-historic painting of something that should not be. It's the Bat-symbol, Bruce's Bat-symbol, and for Tim it is all the evidence he needs to confirm his belief that Bruce is alive, somehow, somewhere. He is alive, just lost in space and time. The wheels of the DCU keep on grinding.

And then, outside this cave, whilst basking in the afterglow of beautiful discovery, standing with his motley crüe, Tim is stabbed through the abdomen with a long sword by a ridiculously costumed assassin with the even more ridiculous moniker of The Widower. He is left to bleed to death in the barren desert dunes. Truth, as always, comes with a price, death being an easy one to pay.

Red Robin #5 marks a sly turn for the book. There is a lightness to Tim's demeanor, a sense of humor long buried that he now allows to rise to the surface in droll manner. It should be noted that all the issues to this point have been narrated by Tim Drake in the past tense, so the reader is safe in assuming that all, eventually, ends well for our hero, or at the very least, ends with hero in lucid enough state of mind to recount his adventures. The change in tone of the narration in this issue, in the way Tim recounts his story, is telling of the enormous weight lifted off of his shoulders by his discovery of proof that Bruce is alive. He may not have found Bruce, indeed may never find him, and seems to be no closer to finding him, but at the very least he has proven it to be so, and in the process, proven himself to not be insane. One cave painting of a Bat-symbol and all is well. Now, Tim can move on with his life, even if he is now dying, bleeding to death in the desert.

Obviously, Tim does not die. He manages to save himself and one of the assassins who had been helping him. They manage to drag each other to a Wayne Facility in Baghdad where Ra's Al Ghul sends ninja to the rescue. Tim awakes from surgery believing he had died and been resurrected through unnatural means, just as Ra's Al Ghul has done many times before. While this is not so, literally, it becomes clear throughout the issue that Tim has had his identity resurrected. He is Tim Wayne, after all, the adopted son of Bruce Wayne, the original Batman. He was the last true Robin to study and train under the master himself. He has compromised and crossed lines and made allies with enemies all to find truth and through truth, to find peace, and he has now done so. Compromising can stop. He can again be the hero he had always been trained to be. He can be Batman's son.

At issues end Tim stands defiant in front of mirror in a room in the cavernous underground headquarters of The League of Assassins and declares his new mission is to bring the League and their enemies down, to finally end the reign of terror perpetrated by these international criminal organizations. He has regained himself and regained his purpose, and of this, there is no more doubt. In this issue, too, it is telling to note that the narration enters into the present tense. Tim has brought us up to speed and his past has now met up with his present. There is only future ahead.

Friday, October 2, 2009

RISE: The Blackest Night! Part I - Zombie Make-Out Party!!

Large-scale comic book events (are there any other kind?) inevitably spawn a number of off-shoot books meant to broaden the scope of the initial event, as well as to pump up sales, as the hope is that people who are closely following the main event will buy these ancillary titles out of the fear of missing a crucial story beat or simply out of completist impulse. Inevitably, many of these books turn out to be disappointing and rarely add to the enjoyment of the central event, and usually end up contributing more to so-called 'event fatigue'. The latest and greatest event to hit the shelves this summer is Blackest Night, an 8-issue mini-series that has been in the works for over two years, and that borrows on Green Lantern continuity going back even further. It, like Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, and Countdown before it, has now birthed it's own set of step-children.

Blackest Night is brought to you from the fine folks responsible for the Green Lantern Universe over the past few years, namely, writers Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi, and artists Ivan Reis, Ethan Van Sciver, Doug Mahnke, and Patrick Gleason. Other contributors have been involved, not to mention some truly great inkers, but those named above have been the main architects of the Green Lantern world for some time now, with Johns and Reis serving as the dynamic duo on the main event book itself. The conceit is that the dead of the DCU will rise in zombie-fied form and wreak havoc on the living, seeking their revenge on those who have cheated death. The spark of all this undead rising is a war of light between the various Lantern Corps that dot the universe. So, an event born out of GL lore bleeds out into the greater DCU, seemingly necessitating more than one series to show the effects of all this mayhem. On paper, sounds good. If some is good, more is better, right? Not so much.

The main conceit of the dead rising and confronting their still living loved ones is a powerful idea, one that plays off the very long personal histories many of these characters share. All heroes and villains of the DCU have lost someone close to them or been responsible for the death of someone, directly or indirectly, so having them come face to face with their checkered pasts embodied in the scarred and mauled remains of the victims of their actions is an intense dramatic device. The troublesome aspect of this device, however, is how quickly its power can become diluted through repetition. The series runs the risk of collapsing into just an endless succession of zombie uprisings, angry and confused confrontations, and fistfights, diminishing in emotional return with each repetition. The story needs to be more than just this in order to both sustain the status of being a major event and also sustain reader interest beyond the initial reveal. Luckily, Johns is no slouch, and the careful planning and long gestation of this story shows very quickly with each of the first 3 issues. It is very clear from these early story beats that this event will be about more than just zombies.

The same can not be said, however, of the ancillary titles that have launched alongside the main event. Already sitting on shelves in your local comic shop will be Blackest Night: Superman, Blackest Night: Batman, and Blackest Night: Titans, each one dealing with how the events of the rising dead are affecting these specific corners of the DCU and the heroes who reside in them. While all of these books have their own unique positives to speak of, they unfortunately all suffer from the exact same problem, namely the diminishing returns brought on by the exhaustive parroting of the same formula. The characters featured may be different, their foils specific to them, but the scenarios, and how and where they play out, are unsurprisingly the same.

Each mini-series is three issues long and, with the release this week of Blackest Night: Titans #2, each has now reached their second issue. Each series has followed this basic template: issue one introduces us to the main characters at play, namely, the heroes of the title, as well as the setting of the series. This leads to scenes of Black Lantern rings flying into town, penetrating graves and coffins in cemeteries, tombs, and memorials; this leading to inevitable panels of outstretched gnarled hands punching out of said graves, tombs, and coffins accompanied by the word "RISE". Scenes of townsfolk being mutilated by these newly arisen zombies follows this, along with the "shocking" confrontation of these undead zombies with the heroes and assorted loved ones of the piece. These confrontations all have the Black Lantern-ized former dead spouting off extreme vitriol at our heroes all to elicit intense emotional reactions out of them, as well as out of readers. Cue cliffhanger splash page consisting of the reveal of some other new Black Lanterns and issue number one is in the books. Issue two breaks down into action set pieces involving our heroes attempting to fight the seemingly invincible Black Lanterns, all while suffering through more emotionally wrenching and savage diatribes. Insert Superman, Batman, and the Titans, and pair them with their own specific emotional counterparts, shake and serve.

When read in whole and taken together as part of the larger event, the formulaic delivery embodied in these books is too striking to ignore. However, these three titles demonstrate how a simple formula can serve as just a springboard, and that when played with in the hands of different writers and artists, it need not all lead down the same path. To do them justice, let's examine each series separately.

Blackest Night: Superman is by far the weakest of the three. The scenes in the opening pages of the first issue are trite and the people of Smallville are central-casting-clichés of simple mid-western townsfolk. The dialogue consists of discussions of grain silos and dismemberments caused by farm equipment. It feels like a city-slickers attempt at capturing the romanticized view of small-town America, but it just comes across as insulting. ("My trick knee I got during Korea is acting up again. Must mean Black Lanterns is on the way, Ma.") These opening scenes do nothing to move the story forward and if their purpose is to set the scene then they do so lazily. Mid-Western farmers talk about more than farm accidents and grain prices, and a stronger writer would explore this more, instead of just pulling out standard cliffs notes dust-bowl era dialogue. If panels aren't serving the story, they're just taking up space, and that is a unforgivable crime when your issue allotment is only three.

Issue #2 of BL: Superman curiously opens in a similar manner, with a montage sequence of panels introducing the reader to various other townsfolk around Smallville, and it, too, contains equally derisible dialogue. Making matters worse, penciller Eddy Barrows draws the people in these panels with such ridiculously wide grins, they come across as Stepford Wives crossed with Joker laughing gas victims. There is very little story to speak of in this issue, it is dominated by splash pages and large panels, seemingly to add weight to the feeble plot. Supergirl makes an appearance, but is drawn with awkward proportions, more muscular and stout than suits the age of her character, and her uniform is sloppily ill-fitting. The issue is essentially one drawn out fistfight between Superman and undead Superman of Earth-2, and yet, it's disturbing how much of a reactionary and ineffectual bystander Superman comes across. Writer James Robinson pulls off the unnerving feat of re-enforcing the misguided perception that Superman is boring.

Blackest Night: Batman follows the formula, substituting Gotham for Smallville, but Batman comes across as much more proactive. It may be Richard Grayson under the cowl now, but he studied at the school of Bruce Wayne, and none was better at taking a leadership role in a crisis. This mini-series is stronger than BL: Superman and it works much better, in part because the dark, intense, and ghoulish themes of Blackest Night play out better in the dense urban gothic cathedral of Batman's Gotham City. The characters of the Batman Universe are steeped in death and tragedy; all of the major players, Wayne, Grayson, and former Robin, Tim Drake, losing their parents in their youth due to violent crime. Commissioner James Gordon has lost a wife and had his daughter paralyzed by the criminally insane, and newest recruit Damien, biological son to the dearly departed Mr. Wayne, was born of an odd eugenics experiment and raised surrounded by death by international assassins. Zombies are supposed to scare this lot? I think not.

This series also tries to break out of the molds where it can. When the bodies of criminals are being transported from Gotham to Washington on a military transport airplane, the plane is overrun by the flesh-seeking Black rings. The emerging Black Lanterns rise out from the exploding mid-air wreckage, saving the readers from more panels of hands bursting from the ground than is absolutely necessary, and providing a far more exciting scene than if they had just emerged from a morgue or grave.

Bruce Wayne, though dead, is a central figure in the Blackest Night narrative, and it has been alluded to in several story beats that he will factor greatly into the main event as it unfolds. It is his desecrated gravesite that serves as the jumping off point for the series, and his skull that the Black Hand uses to unleash the Black Lantern rings. All of this lends some weight to this particular mini-series missing from BL: Superman. It also greatly helps that BL: Batman is penned by Peter Tomasi, the long-standing writer on Green Lantern Corps and one of the aforementioned main architects of the GL Universe. Tomasi seems to have a solid understanding for how this series will fit into the greater narrative, and it translates into a greater command of character and story. Tomasi also makes room for quiet moments, as when Dick and Damien discuss their feelings on death whilst speeding in the Batmobile, or when Deadman humorously goads Dick on his choice of Damien as his Robin. His Batman and Robin are proactive and strong, as are his Jim and Barbara Gordon. Despite the formulaic template of the first two issues, BL: Batman is an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Of the three books released so far, the one that breaks furthest from the mold is Blackest Night: Titans written by J.T. Krul with pencils by Ed Benes. It again follows the formula, substituting San Francisco for Smallville and Gotham, but there are a few change-ups that add a bit more drama to the first issue. First, there are no scenes of zombie hands punching up through graves; in fact, no scenes at all of the Black Lanterns rising. In BL: Superman and BL: Batman the Black Lanterns are shown tearing into town, indiscriminately ripping into the populace with unbridled bloodlust. Here, instead, the Black Lanterns are introduced in ways that are unique to their targeted victim, and this device shows they are capable of strategy and cunning, not just outright mutilation and terror. Each of the Titans are approached in very cruel ways; Omen and Terra team up to fool Beast Boy into believing his long dead love has returned to him (which leads to a disturbingly hot zombie make-out session) and Donna Troy is awoken by the squeaking wheels of the pram of her long dead child - killed along with her husband in an auto accident - as it slowly wobbles into her bedroom.

The second issue takes up exactly where the first leaves off, and as with the second issues of the other two series', it is the "fight" issue. Hawk and undead Hawk double up on Dove; Cyborg, Starfire and Beast Boy battle Terra and Omen; and in the most striking scene, Donna Troy is bitten, Dracula-style, by her own zombie-fied child; the Titans Tower, located on a small isle off the San Francisco Bay, is once again leveled to the ground; and the final splash page consists of a scene now typical for all Blackest Night related issues, that of a group of Black Lanterns arriving menacingly on scene, ready to lay waste to all. It is quite entertaining, but again, striking how it all fits neatly into the same template.

One's decision to purchase these ancillary books will undoubtably come down to their attachment to the characters involved. Titans fans are more likely to purchase a series involving these characters than a more casual reader who is only following the main event. This here is what ultimately proves to be the great achilles heel of most spin-off books; no matter how entertaining they may end up being, they can never be allowed to be of any real consequence. Any major story beats, any truly important plot points to the overall event will always be presented as part of the main story. Editors are well aware that many readers will stay away from ancillary books for any number of reasons, from simple disinterest to economic thrift. If readers are going to purchase only one title a month, they are going to choose the main book, so that is where the true story needs to be.

Ultimately, too, Blackest Night is Geoff John's story. He has orchestrated and built this monster for years now and everything else revolves around it. He is the Sun in this solar system, and all other titles simply rocks that spin off his gravity. Where Johns goes, they go, and so, too, do readers. Considering this, writing the spin-off must be one of the more thankless tasks in comic-dom. However, some creators, like those pesky Black Lanterns, "RISE" to the occasion. Others just fall dead.

Next in PART II: "Our Story So Far..."