Abstract Studio, Alan Moore, Alberto Ponticelli, Batman, Brian Michael Bendis, Charles Perrault, Chris Samnee, Court of Owls, DC Comics, Death of the Family, Devil, Dial H, FCO Plascencia, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Greg Capullo, House, Indestructible Hulk, Jeff Lemire, Jock, Jonathan Glapion, Justice League Dark, Leinil Francis Yu, Lilith, manga, Mark Waid, Marvel, Marvel NOW!, Matt Kindt, Rachel Rising, Scott Snyder, Sleeping Beauty, Strangers in Paradise, Sweet Tooth, Terry Moore, The Killing Joke, The New 52, Ultimate Spider-Man
Scott Carney: I kinda feel like I’m about to break the law or punch my ticket to hell or something with what I’m about to say about Batman #16 (DC); but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s my honest-to-goodness opinion, and that’s what Images and Nerds is all about; so here it goes: dude, I ain’t feelin’ it. And what I am feeling–if this qualifies as a feeling–feels forced, kind of like “How can I take a character who is so far over the top by nature–and by cinematic nurture–that even he can’t see the top anymore and make him over-the-top-er?” Maybe it has nothing to do with Snyder’s storyline at all. Maybe it has nothing to do with his take on the Joker. Maybe it has everything to do with the over-the-top expectations–especially after the revelation that was The Court of Owls arc. Well, whatever it is, Death of the Family has been decidedly underwhelming. This issue, in particular, seems to be all about the shock value–and knowingly so–all the way to the electrifying final panel of the story proper, where Batman plays the role of a Tesla plasma lamp. (He sat so quickly that he must have a trick up his sleeve–or rubber drawers on. I’m leaning toward the latter; I mean, you know he’s prepared for this; he had amazingly absorbent balls in his belt, apparently, which he used to rescue the Arkham Asylum Dancers. By the way: I did like the dancers, so it wasn’t a total disappointment!) How does Batman get there in the first place? Simple: he fights his way through a bunch of armed inmates over the course of three less-than-spectacular–more so muddled and surprisingly, for Greg Capullo, meager–pages; he “RRRAAAAAHHHH”s his way past a royally horrific–in concept, but, sadly, not in execution–tapestry depicting a history of Bat-tragedies and comprised of, umm, well, people sporting PEG-tubes, which is clearly meant to ratchet up the creepiness, all of them stitched together by the Dollman and rendered–ironically–lifelessly by Capullo and–to be fair–inker Jonathan Glapion and colorist FCO Plascencia, who collectively fail to provide the “pop” as promised while the Joker waxes nostalgic about his equal parts woeful and awful living “love letter” to Batman; he walks through three Rogues (Mr. Freeze, Clayface, and Scarecrow) with ridiculous–almost pointless–ease, as if he’s being guided expertly by some geek through yet another level in some Batman/Arkham video game, and knocking off sub-bosses on his way to the final boss, the Joker, who is flanked, unnecessarily, as it turns, by three more anemic antagonists: the Penguin, the Riddler, and Two-Face; he seems to lose his will to live after watching video footage of the members of the Bat-family getting their Bat-butts handed to them; and, finally–maybe even mercifully–he sits. Yup: that’s how it goes; and I couldn’t care less–especially since the back-up story just inexplicably continues the primary story, but with a co-writer and a different artist, who nudge the hanger back up onto the cliff for a few pages, only to confuse him by offering him another chance to test his grip. Oh no! What’s under the cloche? Come on: does it really matter what’s on the platter? Credit where credit is due: Jock’s Joker is exceedingly more terrifying than Capullo’s; and, wouldn’t you know, the story’s undeniably better, perhaps thanks to James Tynion IV’s hand in the telling. That ain’t how it should be, but that’s how it is. And here’s another “how it is”: as good as Owls was, its end was pretty darned awful. So, color my expectations low for the conclusion of this claptrap.
Phew. OK, well, I guess I’m ready for the comic Geekstapo to come cuff me and cart me away.
Derek Mainhart: Yeah, I’m completely with you here. The whole point of this seems to be Snyder turning the Joker dial up to 11. Between the human tapestry bit (which I was even less impressed with; what’re we, drawing inspiration from Human Centipede now?) and the goofy Bat-gadgets for every occasion, this whole exercise is steering dangerously close to camp. This makes Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (its claim to definitive Joker story still unchallenged) seem positively restrained by comparison. (Perhaps such comparisons are unfair, but when your publicity machine ramps up expectations this high, they’re inevitable.)
Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #16 (DC): Now here’s a book that could’ve used some publicity. (Hey, we tried.) This comic is not only the latest casualty of the New 52, but also the second Jeff Lemire-related book we’ve lost in the last couple of weeks (after the elegaic Sweet Tooth). If you wanted over-the-top action mixed with a generous amount of high camp, then this book was for you (emphasis on “was“). Series writer Matt Kindt (like Lemire, an emigre from the indy world) brought a distinct, knowing sensibility to the proceedings; this was well-orchestrated chaos. That being said, this issue seemed a bit of a rush; understandable given that it’s the final issue. Still, Kindt gives fans of the book everything they’ve come to expect: arcane conspiracies, outlandish tech with ridiculous acronyms (B.I.G.F.O.O.T. – you’ll have to read it), explosive violence, and wading through it all, the tragicomic figure of Frank, equal parts determination and reluctance. Kindt frames the story from the point of view of a garden variety secret agent from Homeland Security who witnesses Frank and his fellow monsters wreak havoc upon his well-laid plans. At first I thought this was annoying, even superfluous, taking away precious space in what is, after all, a last issue. Then, at the end, said agent submits his account of the action to his superiors. They recommend he take a leave of absence. Further, they inform him they will be editing his report because it is too “…insane”. Could this be sly commentary on the book’s premature cancellation? Either way I’m saddened that this ragtag misfit of a book, like Frankenstein himself, couldn’t find a place in the world. I’ll miss Alberto Ponticelli’s visceral renditions of viscera. I’m glad to see him on Dial H, a book even odder and better than this one. I hope it doesn’t soon suffer the same fate.
SC: Yeah, this is a major loss–not just because we’re losing a consistently clever book, but because we’re also losing another forum for the considerable talents of Matt Kindt. Was I happy with this hastily-stitched-together goodbye? Not really. While I liked Frank’s matter-of-fact well-timed bomb–”That’s why I brought explosives”– and a depressed Frank’s knowing countenance as carved out by Ponticelli in the first panel of page 11, I was put off–as you were initially, anyway–by the insinuation of Agent Martin. Unfortunately, unlike you, I wasn’t able to analyze my way toward any sort of appreciation. But, ultimately, that’s my fault and my right, right?
DM: Or maybe you’re just lazy.
SC: Luckily, Frankenstein, the character, isn’t suffering the same fate as the monthly that carried his name: according to Lemire, he’ll be a part of the “core” four of Justice League Dark. So, in a way, he’s Hrrm-ing his way home.
DM: JLD? Color me less than excited.
SC: But if you like your heroes big and green, they don’t come much bigger or greener than the big green guy in Indestructible Hulk #3 (Marvel). What a smash hit this series has been through its first three issues! Looks like Mark Waid has found another perfect partner in Leinil Yu. But while Chris Samnee, Waid’s daring better half on DD, finds success in humorous subtlety, Yu is all about power–both the potential for and the expression of. The Hulk’s rage has never been captured as well as when Yu unleashes it in massive splashes–in this case, two ridiculously outrageous splashes: one, page 13, will be a classic rendering of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s newest W.M.D.; and two, page 23, Hulk’s Shining moment: Heeeeeere’s Hulkie! Great stuff. But that’s all fluff compared to my favorite part of the book: I mean, I could be wrong, but it looks like Waid’s taking a page from the prescription pad of television’s recently retired Dr. House. By building a team of quirky scientists around Banner, Waid is, like Yu, playing with potential: the door is now open for witty dialogue–one of Waid’s strengths–and complex human interaction, which will most assuredly balance out–or, more likely, outclass–the inevitable monster moments that may tend to ring hollow no matter how spectacular the visuals are. (See Bendis’s Miles-heavy issues of Ultimate Spider-Man for the ultimate example of secret identities besting their costumed alter-egos when it comes to compelling narratives.) And even though the final few panels petered out with an all-too-familiar–and much too goofy–punch to the gob of R.O.B.–a silly Skeets wannabe and instantly obsolete version of a monitoring device assigned to Banner–this is the superhero book I’m most excited about right now.
DM: From superheroes to the supernatural: Rachel Rising #13 (Abstract Studio). Okay, so I’m late to this party. But I’ve been hearing the accolades (not to mention your constant badgering, Scott), so I gave in and picked up the first trade. Then the second. And now I’m picking up the single issues, such is my craving for this unholy thing. And unholy really is the word. Creator Terry Moore (of Strangers in Paradise fame) has concocted an intoxicating brew of simmering supernatural suspense set against the seemingly quaint town of (the tellingly named) Manson. The story follows Rachel, a young woman who was recently murdered, and who has since, inexplicably, risen from the grave. Not quite alive, not quite dead, Rachel searches for answers behind her death and current state. She doesn’t have to search very far though, because the answers are also looking for her.
The story has a leisurely, atmospheric pace, with entire passages told wordlessly, that owes something to manga. But the narrative itself is firmly rooted in Americana. Rachel’s predicament has some connection to horrific witch trials that took place in Manson 300 years past. Biblical figures (who often play an outsize role in the American imagination) such as the Devil (or a devil) and Lilith are invoked. And then there’s that most American of fiends (judging from TV and movies), the serial killer.
The current issue (13, how apropos) widens the scope of the mythology with the inclusion of Charles Perrault and the “true” story of Sleeping Beauty (you’ll never look at the fairy tale the same way again). Meanwhile Lilith’s dread agents begin putting her nasty plan for the town in motion, in revenge for the witch trials. The reader may ask, as Rachel does in an earlier issue, what relevance could such long ago events have on the present? In fact, one of Moore’s themes is the insidious way acts of violence reverberate down through history. Furthermore, the type of violence he’s exploring is specifically, intimately, brutally, violence against women. Just a cursory glance at our world of honor killings and gang rape will show that this theme could hardly have more currency.
Sound too heavy? In lesser hands it might be. But Moore displays a light touch; first in his art, with its delicate interplay of line and texture, positive and negative space, and perfectly balanced use of black and white (I wouldn’t want to see a color version of this book). And, just as importantly, in the relationships of his characters: the warmth, resiliency and wry humor of Rachel’s makeshift family, so reminiscent of Strangers in Paradise, offers a refreshing, necessary tonic to all of the awful things that happen to them.
As I said, I’m late to this party. But, as Rachel herself is ample proof of, better late than never. Needless to say, Book of the Week. And one of the best books being published period.
Scott & Derek