Crisis On Multiple Earths: Volume Three

With the somewhat lackluster JLA collection that preceded this one on “the shelf”, I was unsure what to expect going into this next trade.  I’ve read the previous volumes in this series, so I knew the gist of what was to come: The Justice League of America from Earth-One crosses paths with the Justice Society of America from Earth-Two to prevent imminent destruction of their worlds.  It’s a fairly standard formula, but it’s worked in the past, so I was curious to see what this round of stories would bring.

After reading them, I find myself torn.

This volume collects a number of crossover stories, but the main focus lies with two in particular.  The first begins in the comic’s 100th issue, consisting of a three-issue storyline uniting the JLA and the JSA on a quest to locate the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the only individuals capable of preventing Earth’s demise at the hands of a nearly unbeatable villain.  The second finds heroes from the JLA and JSA united on a new version of our world, Earth-X, in which the Nazis won World War II and rule America.

The basic ideas behind these stories are good.  There’s plenty of intrigue to keep the reader entertained, and they’re more involved than your standard “fight the bad guy and immediately win” trope.  Unfortunately, I found something lacking in these issues, particularly the “Seven Soldiers” story arc.  The JLA and JSA members split up into seven groups, each on a mission to locate one of the Seven Soldiers, who have been scattered throughout various points in history. As a history fan, I enjoyed this element of the story and relished the chance to find small historical factoids peppered throughout the comic.

wpid-wp-1446164512632.jpgSadly, there were seven groups each off on their own adventure, and each of their respective stories had to be told.  The individual stories were good, but their inclusion dragged out the larger plotline.  Each side story was essentially the same: travel back in time, locate the missing Soldier, fight a historical figure well-known from that time period, and be magically zipped back to the present.  One or two I could handle, but seven nearly identical missions dragged out the story, and when its culminating scene finally occurred it felt rather anticlimactic, given such a lengthy build-up.

While reading these stories, I couldn’t help but notice similarities to the previous Justice League of America comics I had just read.  Early on in the trade I witnessed both Robins commiserating over their unfair treatment by other League members:

wpid-wp-1446139859680.jpgMy first thought upon seeing this was, “Oh please, not more melodramatic whining”.  I had had my fair share of this in the last trade I read, and wasn’t exactly eager for more.

Luckily, the complaining and random arguing occurred less here than in the last collection.  Still, I can’t help but wonder why so many of the characters were portrayed as angst-ridden teenagers.  These are supposed to be the defenders of our world, yet they’re often arguing like children.

On the flip side, I was happy to see that the women in the JLA and JSA were continually shown as strong and independent.  Black Canary has stood out time and time as a character who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself.

wpid-wp-1446164758862.jpgIt makes me happy to see such characterizations included in these comics, especially given that essentially all of the comic book writers at the time were men.  It might do people some good to go back and read some of these earlier comics the next time they claim the medium devalues and objectifies women.

And we certainly can’t forget Wonder Woman, in all of her no-nonsense glory:

wpid-wp-1446165600776.jpgShe means business, and doesn’t bother pausing to blush or giggle at the random (though well-deserved) compliment from Batman.  Again, this may not be a seminal point in feminist history, but moments like these cement my belief that I may have been wrong to judge comics as possibly demeaning to women.  These characters are presented as strong and self-sufficient, and often more capable and focused than their male counterparts.  The writers are going out of their way to depict women in a more equal light, and for this I commend them, as many other forms of media took a long time to follow suit.

I was happy to see that the trade ended on serious, thought-provoking note, rather than the typical “happily ever after” finale.  In this issue, Sandman is distraught over having wrongfully imprisoned his former sidekick, believing him to be a mindless beast.  Once he learns that he was wrong, he is shown dejectedly walking away from the group, as Batman poses the following questions:

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I enjoy the inclusion of such existential questions, if only because they lend a more serious, reflective tone to the comic.  The stories feel much more human with inclusions such as these, and I enjoy them infinitely more than the standard “bad guys lose, good guys win, everyone’s happy” tales.  There seems to be a slight shift towards this form of storytelling, and I can only hope that as the decades continue, the comics begin to adopt this more in-depth, moralistic approach to their stories.

Overall I enjoyed the stories in this comic.  Some felt a bit lengthy and drawn-out while I was reading, but I can appreciate them for what they are.  The comics aren’t perfect, but they’re entertaining, and they show a move towards more complex character development that I quite enjoy.  As each character develops his or her own distinct personality, I’ll be interested to see how members of the JLA and JSA interact with one another, and what problems may arise as a result.

-Jess

Justice League of America: Hereby Elects…

Fresh off my Joker high from the last trade I read, I delved into this collection of Justice League stories eager for more.  As I worked my way through this book though, I was a bit underwhelmed.  I found a number of problems with this trade, all of which left me feeling less satisfied than many of the other trades I’ve read.

This particular collection doesn’t unite stories about a specific single character or storyline, but rather focuses on the issues that showed the induction of various members to the Justice League.  Therein lies one of this trade’s biggest problems.  Because the book jumps around within continuity, the stories collected here are forced to act as standalones, but that’s not how they were initially intended.  Each successive issue makes references to prior events, and while the comics do what they can to fill in the blanks, there is a disjointed feeling to the stories as a whole. I’ve come to expect holes within a story here and there, since it’s impossible to read every comic ever written.  This trade had missing pieces at every turn though, and it got to be tedious trying to pick through the backstory to understand what was going on.

I did my best to ignore these missing plot points and focus on the individual stories instead.  Unfortunately, I just wasn’t all that impressed with those presented here.  Of the stories this trade collects, I was most excited to read Black Canary’s.  I’ve grown rather fond of her character, and was excited to read her first story as a JLA member.  One of the aspects of her character that I always enjoyed was that she didn’t have any super powers.  She was just a highly skilled fighter and had a fiercely compassionate side to go with it.  I found this combination endearing and engaging.

This trade flipped that on its head though, when she mysteriously develops her own superpower, some sort of ultrasonic emission.

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The comic explains this away as a result of her involvement in the battle against Aquarius (a previous JLA story that I had fortunately already read).  While I can understand the writer’s reasoning for bringing about this change to the character, it didn’t sit well with me.  I liked that Black Canary was powerful without having to be super.  Although she is unable to control this new ability when it first appears, I’m perceptive enough to guess that it will only be a matter of time before she’s using this newfound power to her advantage.

What’s more, this new power presents itself just as Black Canary is being considered for membership in the JLA, and it is pointed out(by Hawkman, no less) that although she knows Judo, she may not be able to hold her own against more formidable adversaries, as she doesn’t possess any “super” abilities.

Um…excuse me, but NO.

Batman doesn’t have any “super powers” either, but I don’t see anybody questioning his inclusion in the JLA.

This scene left me feeling a bit salty, and although I’m sure I’ll be fine with Black Canary’s new-found power, I just wasn’t happy with how this whole situation developed.  In a trade meant to celebrate heroes’ induction into the JLA, Black Canary’s storyline felt too forced, and just a tad convenient.  It didn’t really do justice to such a great character.

Another aspect of these comics I found frustrating was just how much arguing ensued.  I realize disagreements are going to occur within the JLA.  When a group of strong-willed individuals get together, there’s bound to be some friction.  Besides, this is one of the driving forces behind the comic, and I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is Earth’s heroes arguing like a bunch of high schoolers:

wpid-wp-1446074275373.jpgThey are legitimately arguing about who should be allowed into their club, and this happens in every. single. issue.  I could understand its inclusion with one character if a debate felt warranted, but having to read the same argument over and over felt tedious and unnecessary.  I came to expect it in each issue, and found myself slogging my way through those pages, waiting for the inevitable conclusion.

Despite the drama, I was at least glad to see that the female characters were given a bit more backbone and freedom.  They comment on the fact that the JLA needs more female members, and indeed, Black Canary, Hawkgirl, and Zatanna are all inducted into the JLA within this compilation.  They also voice their own opinions and make their own choices:

wpid-wp-1446077747700.jpgSure, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking feminism, especially by 21st century standards, but for the 1970’s it’s impressive enough to catch my attention.  Plus I may have just been happy to see that the women didn’t react petulantly and start to complain if they don’t support an idea.  Oddly enough, the male characters carry that torch throughout the trade.

Ultimately I wasn’t overly impressed with this collection.  The stories were incredibly wordy and the artwork wasn’t up to the standards I’d come to expect.  These stories seemed to hearken back to the Golden Age, which felt like a clear regression.  Although I recognize their importance within the continuity, as each member of the JLA is important in their own way, the stories presented in this trade just didn’t grab my attention the way others have.  I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad this collection was mercifully short.  With another JLA trade immediately following this one on “the shelf”, I’m remaining optimistic and hoping for slightly more engaging stories.

-Jess

The Joker: The Clown Prince of Crime

The next trade on the shelf threw me for a bit of a loop.  Glancing at the cover, I expected it to be a collection of Joker appearances in the Batman comics.  Once I started reading, I realized this wasn’t the case, and it was instead a collection of Joker comics from the 1970’s, completely separate from Batman.  I wasn’t even aware The Joker had his own comic.  I suppose it’s not surprising, given how popular of a character he is.  What is surprising is that this series lasted for just nine issues.  The stories presented here are very entertaining, and it seems odd that the comic wouldn’t be continued.

Each issue in this series focuses on The Joker’s encounter with a separate hero (or sometimes villain).  He squares off against the likes of Green Arrow and Two-Face, each time bringing his panache and penchant for theatricality to the page (not to mention his love of alliteration.)  Who can resist his thoroughly unique brand of criminality, mixing vicious attacks with a healthy dose of slapstick humor? wpid-wp-1445993077502.jpg

Herein lies what makes The Joker unlike any other villain.  He is an evil, sadistic murderer, but you can’t help but smile when he’s on the page.  He’s humorous and silly, qualities that endear him to the reader even as he’s committing violent crimes left and right.  In this regard he’s the perfect villain.  We know he’s bad, but he’s written in such a way that we can’t help but like him, even root for him.

This series also expanded The Joker’s character, branching out in new (and sometimes odd) directions.  Perhaps the best example of this is when The Joker becomes completely enamored with Dinah Drake Lance (aka Black Canary).

wpid-wp-1445995249807.jpgSay WHAT now?

From my prior knowledge of the character, romance has always been the last thing on The Joker’s mind.  Even his primary lady love, Harley Quinn, is less romantic partner and more blindly devoted sidekick.  It was unusual, to say the very least, to see Joker showing any romantic inclinations whatsoever.  It almost made him seem too human, and less the psychotic criminal mastermind we all know and love.

In Joker’s defense, Black Canary is pretty awesome.  Still, it was a bit jarring to read a story in which love was his primary motivating factor.  I’m glad that such details have faded from his character, and that he’s able to focus on the deadly jokes that have made him famous.

Joker’s character also developed with the inclusion of one of his many fabricated origin stories.

wpid-wp-1445996389445.jpgThis was the first Joker backstory I had come across on “the shelf”, and fit seamlessly into what I already knew about the character.  Here, Joker’s origin explains his motive for an art theft.  As expected, he reveals at the end of the story that this family history was made up.  Such inclusions expand the reader’s view of The Joker’s psyche, giving us a clearer picture of just how twisted and maniacal his character can be.

My favorite story in this collection was issue #6, “Sherlock Stalks The Joker”.  In this, Joker encounters an actor portraying Sherlock Holmes on the stage, engages in a quick scuffle, and hits the man on the head.  As a result of the jarring blow, the man believes he actually is Sherlock Holmes, and a game of cat and mouse ensues. My love for literary allusions was fiercely kindled with this issue, with the supposed Sherlock employing a number of Holmes’s catch-phrases, and referencing a handful of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories.

The premise alone was more than enough to hold my attention. Even more intriguing than the concept, though, is Joker’s reasoning for wanting to face off against Holmes:wpid-wp-1446028726165.jpg

Joker seeks a worthy adversary, and views Holmes as one of the best.  The events of this story allow him to spar against a hero whom he would otherwise have no opportunity to face. The fact that Joker acknowledges his “burning need” to humiliate detectives gives further insight into his personality, making the character that much more interesting.

Also, in case the story doesn’t already sound interesting enough, in this issue Joker and Sherlock engage in a fencing battle with golf clubs.

wpid-wp-1446028878702.jpg^Easily the weirdest sentence I’ve written all week.

These stories combine hard-hitting action with pure, unfiltered comedy, and somehow it just works.  Perhaps that’s part of the genius that is The Joker; he’s exciting, crazy, unpredictable, and on top of all that, funny to boot.  That sounds like the makings of a completely engrossing character.

(As an aside, when I typed “engrossing” above, I immediately imagined Joker exclaiming, “Who are you calling gross?!”  Again, I think I read too many comics.)

Each story presented in this series is self-contained, so the trade simply ends with little fanfare.  Surprisingly, Joker’s arch-nemesis Batman never makes an appearance in this collection.  The fact that it still stands as a solid work without his primary foil proves the strength of Joker’s character.  It is doubtful whether many other villains would have been able to uphold an entire comic series without their main counterpart.

I found the stories collected in this series to be highly engaging and unique.  I’m quite surprised that the story didn’t continue (though I realize it’s possible it was continued or rebooted at a later date).  Given The Joker’s popularity, I can’t imagine this not being widely enough read to continue the series.  If written today, I’d imagine such a series could run indefinitely.  I enjoyed seeing Joker encounter various heroes and villains that he might otherwise not have come across.  He meets not only Batman characters, but other DC characters as well.  There were virtually endless possibilities for this series, and the well-written stories and entertaining artwork should have been enough to keep the story going, at least far past nine issues.

Although this particular series didn’t last, I can take comfort in knowing that there are plenty of Joker stories on “the shelf”, just waiting to be read.  This Joker comic didn’t take off, but there are numerous other Joker stories out there, and thanks to Mistah J’s fondness for the character and extensive collection, I’ll get to read plenty more of them.

-Jess

Green Lantern/Green Arrow: Hard Traveling Heroes

My journey through “the shelf” has taken a bit of a sharp left turn with this next trade.  The brainchild of Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams, this comic collects a series of Green Lantern/Green Arrow joint comics which follows their journey together across the country as they seek to discover what exactly is wrong with America.

The series units two different viewpoints.  With Green Lantern, we have a law-abiding citizen who has always believed in justice.  When confronted with a morally ambiguous situation, the character is left with a wavering resolve, unsure if he has been acting in humanity’s best interests after all.

wpid-wp-1445880280912.jpgOn the other side is Green Arrow, the renegade sort who is frustrated and angered by the social injustices he witnesses, and vows to do whatever he can to help those in need, regardless of what side of the law this puts him.

Though brought together with a common goal, the two heroes often butt heads as to how a situation should be handled.

This alone is not an original concept.  Other comics prior to this had allowed opposing superheroes to square off against one another.  What makes this situation unique is that the opposing viewpoints deal with highly relevant ideas.  These comics were written in the early 1970’s, a period of time that saw great social unrest and call for change.  Heavily influenced by the country’s emotional state, the stories featured here take strong political stances, addressing such varied social issues as racism, Native American poverty, and overpopulation.

When I realized the theme of this collection, I was unsure how to react.  This was certainly different than any other comic collection I had read.  Rather than focusing on small-town crime or otherworldly phenomena, these stories focus on pressing, real-world issues that were at the forefront of many Americans’ minds.  I found myself wondering if the stories presented here were likely to engage younger audiences, or if the concepts addressed would go over their heads.  The story arc only lasted for a handful of issues, so perhaps I have my answer there.  Although I’m sure the concepts seemed surprising for a comic book at the time, it presents a unique perspective on very real issues this country faced.  In many ways, this collection felt a bit ahead of its time, causing the reader to question his or her own morality.

The inherent problem with this tactic is that the stories used hit just a little too close to home.  The ideas presented here read like something out of a textbook, and were likely lifted straight out of newspaper headlines.  Comics, like all fictional media, are a form of escapism, and being slapped in the face with constant reminders of the real-world problems surrounding you is not likely going to boost sales.

That’s not to say that such thought-provoking questions can’t be raised.  It just seems to be more effective when done in a roundabout, hinting manner.  The perfect example is presented in this trade, in which Green Lantern and Green Arrow travel to a distant planet after ________ is banished, and witness deplorable living conditions.

wpid-wp-1445965629296.jpgOverpopulation and its devastating effects are certainly not unheard of in our world.  What makes this story so powerful though is that its real-world affect is hinted at tangentially.  Rather than hitting the reader over the head with facts and figures, the story allows one to make these connections on his own and draw his own conclusions.  The story creates emotion and sympathy in the reader without harsh reality looming overhead.  It’s much easier to swallow such heartbreaking stories, even if they mirror our own lives, if we, as readers, can remove ourselves from the situation, at least to a certain degree.  As such, the story stands out without the historical narrative overshadowing it.  Had more of the issues taken this approach, perhaps the comic would have lasted a bit longer.

On a more personal note, I greatly enjoyed the inclusion of Black Canary in a handful of these issues.  The last time I came across her on “the shelf”, she was adjusting to life on Earth One and cautiously flirting with Green Arrow.  The stories here pick up where those left off, with her still attempting to find herself while wrestling with her feelings.  She is as badass as ever, detesting violence and attempting to avoid it at all costs, but able to more than hold her own when she has no other choice.

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One of the elements I’m most intrigued by since starting “the shelf” is the progression of character development and depiction of relationships over the course of decades.  Relationships, particularly romantic relationships, often felt flat in the earlier comics.  They were there, but they were a last-second inclusion, a punch-line to lighten the mood and superficially connect the superhero to the world they were living in.

With Black Canary and Green Arrow, we see the emergence of a deeper type of love being depicted.  Theirs is not the “absent-minded man, unhappy woman” relationship so common in earlier comics.  Instead, there is a deep connection between these two, one that filters out from the story rather strongly.

wpid-wp-1445911031618.jpgKnowing Black Canary is in danger, Green Arrow panics and demands information.  His sole thought is her safety.  O’Neil doesn’t include an aside from the characters depicting their inner thoughts, or have them vocalize their feelings in any direct way; he doesn’t need to.  He lets their actions speak for themselves, which makes for an altogether engaging and compelling story, much moreso than the stilted, unromantic relationships often seen in Golden Age comics.  I was glad to see this progression towards more natural relationships, and hope this form of storytelling is a trend that caught on rather quickly.

The stories collected in this trade are an interesting read.  To an extent they’re a bit dated, but they’re certainly still relevant. Not something I would want to sit down and binge read thousands of pages, but definitely intriguing stories that leave a lasting impression.  After this collection I’m left wondering what, if any, socially conscious comics are being written today, and if they take the same approach or have the same impact that these stories likely did.

-Jess

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (aka THE BEST COMIC EVERRRRR)

I’m taking a break from my analysis of comics on “the shelf” to delve into a discussion about a *gasp* Marvel comic (yes, this blog is primarily DC-based, but that doesn’t mean I can’t branch out every once in a while.  My blog, my rules).  What’s more, I’m talking about a contemporary comic (because a girl can’t survive on 1970’s Batman comics alone).

The comic in question is The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which embodies everything a comic should be.  Long story short, it is FREAKING AWESOME.  I could just write an entire post with the words “I love Squirrel Girl” over and over again, but that wouldn’t really do justice to the genius that is this comic.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl  tells the story of Doreen Green, a girl with the physical strength and power of a squirrel.  The comics begin with her kicking some serious bad-guy butt (all while singing her amazing theme song) before embarking on her first day of college.  These first few pages provide a great introduction to her character in all her awkward, awesome glory.

I received the first issue of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (a reprint, released about a month ago) as a gift from Mistah J, who picked it up in all his infinite wisdom, thinking I would enjoy it (there is a family of squirrels that live in his neighbor’s gutter that I may or may not talk to (and feed) on a semi-regular basis).  The cover was super adorable, and I figured it would be a fun little read, quick and entertaining, but maybe too silly for me to really get into for more than one issue.

OHMYGOSH how wrong I was.

This comic is brilliant, plain and simple.  Ryan North’s witty, realistic writing pairs perfectly with Erica Henderson’s clever artwork, and creates not only a wonderful character but a completely engaging story.

How? I’m glad you asked (I’m sure you did).

The shining light of this comic is Doreen herself.  She is smart and snarky and confident and completely believable.  In a world of overly-drawn, rippled superheroes, Doreen is a breath of fresh air, looking completely normal (big bushy tail aside).  When attending college and needing to be “in disguise”, Doreen tucks her tail in, proclaiming that doing so creates the illusion of a big butt, something she views as a major positive.

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This alone is enough to endear me to her character and the story as a whole, but I was even happier to see this in the following panel:

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This small detail is subtle, and certainly easy to overlook, but I’m thrilled that it was included.  Should Doreen’s butt be the focus of the comic? No, and it’s not.  The sly inclusion of this detail though creates a clear signal that says, “Hey girls, guys might actually like your butt a little big”.  I don’t want to go off on a tangent about the unattainable standards girls hold themselves up to, because that’s not what this post is about.  I have to point out this detail though, because it provides a perfect example of why this series is so great.

Doreen is relatable.  Squirrel characteristics aside, she is just a regular girl, concerned with making friends, appearing normal, and getting tongue-tied when a cute guy talks to her.  Even if Doreen didn’t have any super powers, I would still want to read her story.

That being said, the superhero aspect of her story is equally as awesome as the girl-next-door side.  Doreen is not a member of The Avengers (though she really wants to be), but she still finds herself constantly tossed into life and death battles (okay, sometimes she seeks them out).  One of my favorite stories so far was when she had to go up against Galactus, consumer of planets.  Aided by her ever-faithful squirrel sidekick Tippy Toe, Squirrel Girl *borrows* an Iron Man suit and sets out to head off Galactus before he can get to Earth.

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I hadn’t thought the comic could get any better, and then I saw the Iron Squirrel Suit. You know that’s freaking awesome, don’t even try to pretend it isn’t.

Since this is a newer comic (and not 50+ years old like most of the comics I’ve written about on here so far), I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but take my word for it: Doreen’s encounter with Galactus is well worth the read.  I wondered how one little ‘ole Squirrel Girl could take on such a colossal foe, but she manages to hold her own and save the planet (NOT a spoiler. We’re all still here, so obviously she succeeded).

Another brilliant addition to this series is the inclusion of footnotes on just about every page of every issue.  Although not essential to the story as a whole, I highly recommend reading them as they add an entirely new dimension of humor to the comic.  Indeed, some of my favorite lines from the comics are from the footnotes.  I can’t say for sure whether such an approach is unique to this comic, but it’s certainly well-suited to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, providing us with a little more insight into an already endearing character’s mind.

I said it before and I’ll say it again, I FREAKING LOVE THIS COMIC.  Doreen is the type of superhero I would want my kids to reading about (if I had kids).  A little awkward, a little clumsy, but completely strong and self-sufficient.  The jokes abound, and the humor’s witty and entertaining.  I still maintain that this comic could easily be turned into a television cartoon series, with epic results.  As in, the next “Batman: The Animated Series” epic.  Somebody make this happen and I will love you forever. Also, in said cartoon, can I be the voice of Doreen? Pretty please?? I’m awkward and have a certain affinity for squirrels. That has to earn me some bonus points.  Dibs on playing her in a live-action version as well.  I can act squirrelish when need be, and they wouldn’t have to pad my butt for the tail-tucked-in scenes.

But I digress.

If you haven’t discovered this gem of a comic yet, I recommend you go out right away and buy it (I’m still devastated that I can’t find issues 6-8 anywhere. I have 1-5 collected in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1, but can’t find the single issues for the life of me.  Luckily, Vol. 2 comes out in December.  I’m pretending I’m okay with waiting that long.)  If you’ve already read Doreen’s epic adventures, than you know what I’m talking about, and we should be besties and talk about how awesome squirrels are and how much we want to be in the Avengers and have little squirrel sidekicks.

…Or you could just leave me a comment saying you like her too, like normal people probably do…

Oh, and in case you’re still not sold on the idea of Squirrel Girl yet? Her catch phrase is, “Eats Nuts, Kicks Butts.”

If that doesn’t make you instantly love her, we can’t be friends.

-Jess

Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams: Volume 3

I have already espoused the greatness that is Neal Adams in my previous posts on Volume One and Volume Two of these Batman collections.  By this third volume, I was eagerly flipping the pages, dying to see what new techniques and illustrations he would come up with.  As expected, Adams delivered above and beyond my expectations.

My previous posts on the subject have already delved into the unique style Adams brings to the table in these works as a whole.  Here, I will instead focus on a few key images that stood out in my mind as I was reading, and that I believe are a good representation of his genius as an artist.

wpid-wp-1445559780427.jpgThis first example is a depiction of Two-Face.  This panel’s brilliance is in its complexity.  On the surface it’s a standard frame – no action, just a close-up shot of a character’s face with a little dialogue thrown in.  If other artists did this, I would probably barely give the panel a second look.  This image, though, is well-worth repeat viewing.  Though a simple design, Adams brings emotion and character to Two-Face, showing the dichotomy of his emotions perfectly in his split features.  The image is grotesque yet human, and captures the villain’s personality perfectly.  This was the very first comic depiction of Two-Face I’ve come across on “The Shelf”, and it’s certainly going to be a tough act for other artists to follow.

This second image is fairly self-explanatory in its brilliance.

wpid-wp-1445560468152.jpgWith the grim reaper looming over Robin, presumably ready to strike, Adams’s depiction elicits true emotion from the reader, something many of these earlier comics was lacking.  He gives the reaper’s face a true sense of foreboding, so much so that the reader doesn’t need to see Robin’s face to know a wave of fear is washing over him.  The background, likewise,  adds to the overall image without detracting from the main focal point.  Adams’s keen use of proportion and color creates an eerie, eye-catching image that feels entirely spooky without seeming cheesy or overdone.

The next image that deserves mention is one in which Batman and his sometimes love-interest Talia embrace at the end of one particular issue:  wpid-wp-1445561249910.jpgThis isn’t the first time we’ve seen Batman (or any superhero for that matter) kiss a girl, yet it’s the first that’s stood out to me.  Once again, Adams creates a whole scene with a single panel and manages to draw the reader completely into the story.  You can sense the movement in the picture, seeing Batman pull Talia closer to him as they kiss.  This isn’t merely a simple kiss between characters; this is the culminating scene that we have all seen repeated countless times in comics and movies alike.  Adams’ depiction doesn’t feel cheesy; it feels romantic and natural (randomly shirtless Batman aside).  It was refreshing to see that such a scene could still fit in flawlessly to the story when so much of the other artwork creates a dark and foreboding atmosphere.

Along the same line, I was happy to see that Adams was capable of injecting a bit of humor into his art, at least when the story called for it.

wpid-wp-1445563993568.jpgI wasn’t sure how a Joker story would mesh with Adams’ stylistic approach.  Sure, Adams can nail the darkly sinister side of the character, but the Joker can’t be without a pratfall or two, and I wondered how Adams’s more serious approach to his artwork would work with such a character.

As the panel above shows, Adams manages to incorporate the humorous element quite well into the story.  The Joker’s fall off the pier is depicted in a slightly cartoonish, comical way.  I would expect nothing less; after all, this is the Joker we’re talking about.  What’s impressive is that Adams manages to seamlessly inject this panel into the story without having to make the entire scene cartoonish.  The surrounding panels maintain their dark, sinister feel, yet this one frame gives the Joker the humor that readers have come to expect from him.  Adams’s keen balance of these tones only further proves his talent.

As an aside, I must bring up page 45 of this trade, which I think may be my favorite single page in the entire collection.  On this one page we see the following:

wpid-wp-1445559503490.jpgCommissioner Gordon referencing “the theft of a frankfurter shaped helium balloon” and noting that such a theft is “unusual”.

Understatement of the year, Commissioner.

Next, we have the brilliant appearance of Batman as he sneaks up on an unsuspecting Reeves, who is busy bragging that he could take on the Batman in a fight.

wpid-wp-1445559530915.jpgSeriously. Batman just said Boo.  I can die happy.

Lastly, we see Gordon chuckling to himself as Reeves runs for his life.

wpid-wp-1445559581269.jpgIt’s panels like these that make me want to keep reading non-stop.  Sure, Batman’s a creature of the night, vowing to fight the forces of evil, blah blah blah.  Even he deserves a moment or two of light-heartedness though, and I’m glad to see he’s awarded that every once and a while.

This collection, like the two that preceded it, firmly cement Adams as a key factor in the development of Batman’s image.  He drew these characters so deliberately that there is no question what his intent was.  Not only did he excel at creating a darker, more intense Batman, but he did so without sacrificing the character’s humanity, allowing small bits of humor or comical depictions to weave their way into his art.  I’m truly disappointed that I’ve reached the end of his work with Batman, but given how profound his impact on the character and comic was, I can only imagine that his presence will be felt in the artwork of countless artists to come.

-Jess

PS: Completely unrelated to Adams’s work, and more a personal aside on one of Denny O’Neill’s writing choices:  At one point in the comic, Batman is recovering from a blow to the head and sighs, “Bro-THER”, an exclamation that Mistah J has been known to use once or fifty times.  Finding a similarity between Mistah J and the comics he loves so much, even one as small as this, made me even happier to be experiencing these stories, and only makes me want to devour more.

Okay, adorably nauseating personal anecdote over 🙂

Batman: Tales of the Demon

After having been firmly ensconced in the DC-Kirby comics for a few weeks, I was excited to return to more familiar territory.  “The Shelf” didn’t disappoint, with Batman presenting himself in the next trade I was to read.  This particular  book collects some of Batman’s earlier encounters with Ra’s Al Ghul, the leader of the League of Assassins.

Like most people, I’ve seen The Dark Knight trilogy, so I had at least heard of two of the main characters featured in these stories, Ra’s and his daughter, Talia.  I was happily surprised to see, however, that while the specific events in the movies aren’t featured in the comics, some of the characterization is strikingly similar.  Ra’s is depicted as very calm and collected, able to outwit Batman and evade capture time and time again. He avoids death on numerous occasions and has immeasurable resources at his disposal.  He is, in many ways, a great counterpart for Batman; similar personalities, similar mannerisms, and a similar disregard for the established rules.

Talia, on the other hand, is very emotion-driven, particularly when it comes to Batman, as she reveals time and again when she saves his life.  She professes her love for the caped crusader numerous times throughout these issues, and it seems the feelings are not exactly unrequited.  Although often on opposing sides of the law, Batman and Talia are drawn to one another.  While this is not the first time Batman has fallen for the bad girl (see the first appearances of Catwoman in the 1940’s), Batman and Talia’s story is presented in a more realistic way that makes their bizarre flirtation feel more natural.

wpid-wp-1445475756551.jpgPerhaps a little too natural.  Whatchya alluding to there, Batman??

There is more than one story-arc presented in this trade, as it spans nearly a decade worth of comics.  The shift in storytelling technique is still noticeable though.  Twenty years prior, storylines rarely continued from issue to issue.  Each was self-contained, and while characters might make multiple appearances, their story began and ended with a single issue.

This is not the case for the comics presented here.  These storylines span numerous issues and make a handful of references back to previous events.  The cohesion of the Batman stories into a single universe is not perfect, but it is obvious it’s come a long way from its humble beginnings as standalone issues.

As with the stories themselves, the artwork continues to see a shift as well, much to its and the reader’s benefit.  The marked change is most pronounced in Batman’s many action scenes:

wpid-wp-1445447390743.jpgEarlier Batman comics almost always focused on having Batman front and center in the panel, often with his face clearly visible.  I understand from a storytelling perspective why they would want to do this; it keeps the character at the forefront of the story and keeps him easily recognizable.

By the 1970’s however, comic artistry was clearly changing and evolving into something more closely resembling the comics of today.  Rather than look like the newspaper funnies, comic books were allowed to tell a fully realized story, with panels that draw the reader in and make them feel like part of the action.  Whereas earlier issues make you feel like an outsider, the newer comics put you right in the middle of the action and make you feel like you’re actually there in the dark alley, watching Batman beat a criminal to a pulp.  This sensation is heightened by the fact that Batman is often shown with his back to the reader, or isn’t the central focus of the panel.  This technique gives the reader the sense that they’re actually participating in the scene, making the action feel that much more realistic.

While the artistic styling has made enormous leaps and bounds since the character’s initial appearances, I’m glad to see that at least at this point, Batman still maintains some of his sass.  It was all too evident when, after risking life and limb to rescue a clergyman from certain death, the man refuses aid, saying he will not bow down to intimidation:

wpid-wp-1445477510480.jpgBatman is having non of your nonsensical reasoning, mister.

These scenes are sometimes  few and far between in the Batman comics, but that’s what makes them so great.  The stories have a dark, somewhat sinister tone to them, and yet every so often Batman will crack a joke or make a smartass remark.  These brief comments inject a touch of humanity to the character, for wouldn’t we all respond just as Batman does in many of these situations?  I know that eventually Batman will develop further into the silent, brooding type, but I have a feeling when that day comes I’m going to miss these sarcastic comments.

One other point I must touch upon briefly is this: A handful of the stories in this book were illustrated by Neal Adams.  I’ve already read Volumes 1 and 2 of his collected Batman works, and Volume 3 is next on “the shelf”.  I was amazed, however, to see how easy it was to denote which stories he illustrated versus other artists. From page one I would notice a marked shift in the artwork, and would flip back to the table of contents to see if Adams had illustrated that issue.  Sure enough, he had every time.  I knew his artwork was distinctive, but I’m surprised (and yes, just a tad impressed with myself, thank you very much) that I’m able to recognize his work so clearly.  I won’t linger on this, as I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about his work in my next entry, but I couldn’t ignore this point here.

All in all I was thoroughly impressed with this collection.  This was the first Batman trade I read that unified stories based on a villain, rather than, say, a time period or a specific writer or artist.  I found this method to be a great way to gain a background on Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia, progressing their story rapidly rather than meeting them intermittently over the course of a decade.  Based on the written introduction included in this trade (and the fact that they’re key characters in the friggin’ movies) I can easily deduce that these villains will appear in a number of Batman storylines to come.  Based on what I’ve read here, they are certainly intriguing enough to power a host of storylines to come.

-Jess