Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2 (of 6)

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frazier Irving
Released: May 26, 2010

Writer Grant Morrison has, throughout his career, been saddled with the reputation as being a writer of dense and inscrutable comics. Lines of dialogue such as "... at that time our anti-entropy aegis will succumb to the unstoppable conclusion of the thermodynamic process.", probably does much to lend credence to this assessment. That this line is 'spoken' by a "biorganic archivist" that appears to be a horned rugby match-ball on top of a walking shag carpet doesn't help, either. Or, that it delivers this monologue whilst in a place called Vanishing Point, the terminus of a line known as Space A. Yes, a scene like this sure does give much fodder to those critics of his work who see him as self-indulgent and lost in his own mind. Pity them, really, because hating a scene such as this only shows their own lack of humor and imagination, and those are two things this book demands of its readers.

If one imagines the DC Universe as a living, breathing world, and that the characters who inhabit this world have experienced every single adventure that has been written for them, then one gets close to understanding this scene at Vanishing Point. Every single issue of every single book that has ever been written, saddle-stapled, and shipped to a spinner rack or bookstore near you, is not just a publishing history, but an actual history of a greater multiverse. Years ago, a planet exploded and a small rocket ship carrying an alien baby from that doomed world landed, not on Earth, but in the consciousness of a group of imaginative men who turned that lost child into a superhero, and that superhero into a franchise, and that franchise into a publishing house, a movie studio, and beyond. He wears an "S" on his chest, but there is a small "WB" on the back of his neck just under the hairline. This is a world that exists on paper, the kind that runs through printing presses, and the kind that's green and sits in our wallets. The DCU is a multi-faceted, multi-stringed instrument that builds on itself, twists in on itself, and collapses every which way it can, only to rise again in another new spot. This is what I see when I read a Grant Morrison DC comic.

The scenes in The Return of Bruce Wayne #2 that take place in Vanishing Point seem to encapsulate this idea well. When the Archivist describes Space B as, "an immense cosmic loom of converging and separating timelines. Each track a new vibration, a separate universe, a superstring on a mighty fretboard.", he is describing time as it exists within the confines of this story, time as it exists for the entirety of the DCU, as well as the shelves of your local comic shop. Every time you pick up a DC comic and open the pages, you are essentially plucking one of the superstrings on this cosmic guitar. See, it's not complicated. It's brilliant and actually quite fun.

It's also fun to watch our delusional and lost hero battle with a gigantic tentacled sea-beast that is actually a "hyperfauna" he has brought with him through the time-stream as he has landed in Gotham Village, the Puritanical forebear of modern Gotham. Yes, our Batman is actually a Pilgrim in this here comic, and, as Brother Mordecai, we witness him use those inherently astute detective skills to solve a murder the rest of the town was completely willing to lay at the feet of the devil. Whether in buckled hat and riding boots or in cape and cowl, Bruce is always the world's greatest detective, and Morrison does a wonderful job of allowing us to see that while "Batman" is a costume, a symbol that can be trademarked and put on breakfast cereal and trading cards, it is Bruce who is the soul and heart, as well as the brains of the operation, and he needs no copyrights to dole out truth and justice.

There is a beautiful romanticism to this issue, as well, as Bruce befriends a mysterious woman who lives on the outskirts of the forest, and may or may not have been responsible for summoning him from the dark gods. As a confused Bruce lay in her small cabin, weary from battling the sea-beast, babbling to himself, she calms him with the warm simple words, "...stay with me and I'll love you. Until the end of time." These words are both beautiful and stinging as throughout the course of the issue we see how immensely gargantuan the idea of time actually is, and we are faced with the knowledge that time will indeed some day come to end.

Detractors and critics will undoubtably claim that this is not Batman; that Batman lives in Gotham and fights Bat-villains while swinging on Bat-ropes and driving a Batmobile. Batman fighting "hyperfauna", time-traveling, stealing time-spheres, and scratching graffiti into cave-walls is really no Batman at all, but just the delusional fantasies of a writer who doesn't respect the traditions of the character. Those detractors are both right and wrong. Batman exists in Gotham, in the shadows, and swings in on a Bat-rope to punch out criminal scum in the nick of time, and he will exist as such for as long as we walk into comic shops and movie theaters to read and watch those adventures. Morrison is not disputing that nor overturning that tradition, he is simply plucking for us other strings on the fretboard, showing us the versatility and power of the character; and in doing so shows us the accessories and gimmicks of 70 years of stories are but mere window dressing, and that the man himself is what was truly the most interesting thing all this time. Bruce Wayne is truly indestructible. Throw him anywhere, at any point in time and space, and he will fight and claw his way towards survival, and he will change lives in the process. Bruce Wayne is a man and a character, a trademark and a copyright, an icon and an idea, that can not be destroyed. He will stay with us until the conclusion of the thermodynamic process. And we will love him.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Madame Xanadu #23

Madame Xanadu #23

Writer: Matt Wagner
Penciler: Amy Reeder
Inker: Richard Friend
Released: May 26, 2010

Unto every story falls the showdown, that moment where the paths of the protagonist and antagonist inevitably meet, the point at which good versus evil collide, often violently, when all other options have been exhausted. Madame Xanadu #23 presents us with that moment, as the story of sibling rivalry comes to conclusion with some hot sister-v.-sister action!

In this corner, in possession of immense heart, compassion, sorcery skills to rival all, and an extremely stylish wardrobe, in a lovely purple dress with full skirt and cape (and a sharp utility belt tied nattily round the waist), I give to you, the endlessly strong, survivor of the ages, the defending champion, Madame Xanadu! And in this corner, in possession of deep rage, hubris, arrogance, and mighty magical powers of her own, in white ribbon 'figure-skater' dress with gold armaments, I give to you, the challenger, the villain of the piece, the sister of our titular heroine, Mistress Morgana! Come out of your corners fighting!

Let's get ready to rumble, indeed. The main chunk of this issue is this fight scene between two women who never once touch each other. The surprising aspect of it all, is how brutal and violent this scene is, with nary a punch or kick to be had. Spells are cast, lightning thrown, Latin yelled; this is how sorcerers fight, and even the most hardened superhuman tights-wearer would be a bit shocked. This issue sees our heroine plummet 140 feet into the icy rough waters of the East River, blown through a plate glass storefront window to land with bone-jarring thud upon city asphalt, all of this on the back of being buried under the rubble of her building, and being tossed in the middle of a fire.

The issue moves along at a quick pace, it's propulsive power a testament to the strength of storytelling skills of artist Amy Reeder, who takes Matt Wagner's 'fight' scene and gives it energy and dynamism that flows seamlessly from panel to panel, page to page. It works extremely well for a script that has no filler. This is a showdown through and through, and we are sent from one set-piece to the next, from theatre fire to Brooklyn Bridge to downtown brownstone without delays. There are no wasted panels. This here be the final battle, no superfluous distractions will be allowed. It's this simplicity that could almost be seen as a fault, and that would be a mistake.

This story arc entitled "Broken House of Cards" started seven issues ago, chronicling the plight of a Manhattan housewife, Betty Reynolds, trapped in a loveless marriage and a ho-hum existence, seemingly invisible to even her own husband, except on the one night a week they set aside for less than stellar sex. If one were to compare that first issue with this one here, they would read strikingly dissimilar. Part one is full to bursting with details of Betty's daily life and the circle of friends and neighbors that populate her world. We see her become sick as the possession by Morgana begins to take, and we see her seek out our heroine for desperate help. Issue #23, by contrast, seems incredibly bereft of story. The no-nonsense effortless flow of the issue could strike some readers as hollow, though that deception would be the true beauty of this finale. After all, there have been seven previous issues that have laid out all the players, all the details, given us the ins-and-outs of the major plot points. All the exposition, character motivations, and consequences have been revealed for us. There is nothing left but the duel. So why not give it to us with violent and grand spectacle?

Madame Xanadu #23 does just that. The pages are alive with glistening city-scapes, flying bodies contorted in a ballet of magical violence, and enough glass shards and building debris to fill a Staten Island ferry. At it's core, stands our heroine, by stories end bloodied and battered, her clothes torn to near shreds about her body. But, she has survived and triumphed. Standing in the remains of her once beautiful and humble shop, where she would beckon those in trouble to enter freely without fear, Madame Xanadu tells us that everything will be alright. After all of this, only a fool would not believe her.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review: Power Girl #12

Power Girl #12

Writers: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: Amanda Connor
Released: May 26, 2010

Years ago, I attended a fashion show in San Francisco as part of a benefit for AIDS research. As befitting a cause such as this in a city of such charm and grace, the event lured much star wattage. Magic Johnson co-hosted, and the surprise musical guest to end the evening was the one and only, the inimitable Liza Minnelli. And before you click the back button on your browser to double-check what the hell it is you are actually reading, yes, this is a review of Power Girl #12. Back to my story. There she stood, Liza with a Z, all in endless drapes of black sequins, short jet-black hair chopped in a ragged version of her Sally Bowles cut, to the rapturous applause of a grateful, gleeful, and predominantly gay, crowd. Then she sang. A small medley of her hits, ending, of course, with a full rendition of Cabaret. And while the old chanteuse warbled and labored, it was grand spectacle, and a wonderful reminder of what glorious and amazing work we as an audience had been blessed with because of her.

This is sorta, kinda, how I felt upon reading Power Girl #12, the final issue of the year-long run on this book by writers Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, and artist Amanda Connor. It is a medley of greatest hits, the type of set-piece performed by a mega-star musician for a Super-Bowl half-time show. There is the chorus from Little Red Corvette, followed by a few bars from I Would Die For You, then maybe the bridge to Get Off, ending with the crescendo from Purple Rain. It's glorious, sure, but choppy, and makes you want to just go and listen to the original tracks in full. So, here we get a beautiful scene with Terra in her home-world; then some villains engaged in some post-coital banter that tells us the coitus was perhaps not completely consensual; a day in the life of your average house cat; then there's a little red-haired kid; and then Vartox makes a triumphant return to fight with a cuckolded space alien somewhere in mid-town Manhattan. It all ends as things should end, with cake. Glorious, but choppy, and immediately I wanted to reread the entire run.

What is amazing about this issue is how exuberantly fun it is to just behold. Talking about any slight perceived flaws feels ugly, in fact, because the overall effect of the issue is one of such intense goodwill and joy, complaining about anything feels like pointing out gray hairs on Bob Barker, after he's just given you the keys to a BRAND NEW CAR! Get in the damn car, already!

So, let's talk, instead about all the great things, like that scene between Terra and PG as they lounge at an underworld "spa", bonding emotionally while wearing rainbow-colored, 'mood-ring' bikinis even the most liberal Brazilian sunbather may find revealing. Here, the absolute youthful uninhibited nature of Terra shines as she declares with such effusiveness that PG is her best friend. It's deeply touching and genuine, a magical feat given how surreal the scene itself actually is. "You're my best friend, Kara." I believe her, and it's the best line in the entire book.

And, of course, what Power Girl mix-tape would be complete without a Vartox appearance. It would be like peanut butter with no jelly or Jay-Z with no Beyoncé, just plain not right. So, the greatest character ever created drops his science on the second best track, as he battles with a space husband whose wife he may or may not have taken aboard his headship, if you know what I mean. (*wink) I now begin my campaign to implore DC to give Vartox his own solo monthly, with a back-up feature entitled Space Husband.

"Wait a minute", I hear you saying... "is he going to write a whole review about Power Girl, Liza Minnelli, Prince, and Vartox, and NOT mention the one and only, the endlessly talented, the seemingly indestructible, always irresistible, international super-star artist, Amanda Connor?!?" Of course not, but saying Ms. Connor is in possession of remarkable skills as both a draftsman and storyteller is like calling New York the greatest city in the world, it's stating the obvious. Every single page of the issue absolutely vibrates with life; actual honest-to-goodness, hot-blooded life. Her characters seem to barely contain themselves. Every emotion, every word of dialogue manifests itself in bold expressions of both face and body. If this were a film, the actors would be labeled fully-cooked hams (water-added) and would be laughed out of the industry. This is a comic book, though, and a superhero book at that. There are capes and masks and robots and women with animal parts and space aliens with dreadlocks and a sex scene with Grant Morrison (or is that Dr. Sivana?) and Ms. Connor turns the volume all the way up to eleven. My windows shook with the turn of each page. I felt like the guy in the old Memorex adverts from the '80's. Is it live or is it Amanda Connor? Amazing.

Sadly, children, as stated, this issue is the last in this amazing teams' run. This medley, this mixtape, this greatest hits collection with bonus track, is the swan song of this fine trio of Gray, Palmiotti, and Connor. Worn, battered, and bruised from a fine year of recording and touring, these valiant artists take a final bow as the curtain lowers on the first year of Power Girl. Yes, a new creative team is taking over the reins, and the character has been given a strong new life that seems built to last, but still it will not be the same. It never is. As I reflect on this, my mind wanders back to Ms. Minnelli and her signature tune from that seminal play of Berlin in the 1920's, Cabaret. At the end of the show, as our intrepid writer stands at customs ready to board a train to leave Berlin, the passport agent wishes him well and a speedy return to Germany, to which Bradshaw replies that is "not very likely". "You did not find our country beautiful?", the agent retorts. Bradshaw's simple reply to this, "Yes, I found it beautiful."