Batman: The Cult

This was, by far, the most brutal Batman comic I’ve ever read.

Actually, scratch that.  This was the must brutal comic I’ve ever read, period.

Originally published as a four-part mini-series, Batman: The Cult chronicles what may be Batman’s most gruesome case ever.  It centers around Deacon Blackfire, a persuasive man of questionable origin who claims to have been chosen by god to save Gotham from its wide-swept criminality.

The comic makes no pretenses about what type of story it is, opening with Batman captured by Blackfire, chained and tortured as everyone tries to persuade him to join their cause.

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I’m grateful at least that this torture was implied rather than explicitly shown.  Proof that you can get your point across without resorting to torture porn.

If this had been any other comic, one would assume that Batman devises a masterful plan and ultimately escapes; not so in this case.  Rather, Batman is beaten and, as he puts it, “broken”, falling into ranks with Blackfire’s other loyal followers, meekly abiding whatever he’s told.

The power behind the comic is not only that Batman himself falls victim to this madman, but that countless other people do as well, until Blackfire has a veritable army at his disposal:

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The fervor with which these people follow Blackfire, be it because they’re drugged, psychologically unstable, or just religious zealots, is shocking, and the brutality with which they exact vengeance on “sinners” brings a level of violence to these comics that I haven’t yet seen.  The story is brutal, but effective.

With numerous heartless murders occurring on just about every page, there wasn’t much opportunity for levity.  There are no jokes, no wisecracks.  Batman and Robin are engaged in a war they likely won’t survive, and they know it.

It was surprising, then, to see such an over the top, almost absurd, image crop up during their main battle:

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This “new and improved” batmobile is so outlandish that it seems out of place in such a dark, serious comic.  I admit to cracking a small smile when I turned the page and saw this, but at the same time it felt so out of place in this type of story.  It was the only moment that left a crack in an otherwise seamless trade.

This comic was a major departure from other Batman stories I’ve read. It is dark, realistic, and unflinchingly violent.  It is also expertly written and skillfully drawn, resulting in a thoroughly absorbing story.  I actually began to question if our caped crusader would escape unscathed.  I no longer felt the comforting, safe reassurance that justice would always win out.

This collection was extremely well-written, and while it feels like a misnomer to call it enjoyable, it was definitely enthralling.  I tore through the story in one sitting, dying to see how it would all play out, not really being able to predict anything that was going to happen.  It fit every criteria for what I would look for in a comic, and although at first glance it might not have been something I’d pick up to read on my own, I’m very happy it was included on “the shelf”.

-Jess

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Batman: The Killing Joke

I’ve been looking forward to reading this comic for a long time now.  I knew enough about its notoriety to know its popular, but I knew nothing about the actual plot.  Having plowed through it in the last half hour, all I can say is:

Wow.

This truly is a fantastic, albeit disturbing, story.  There’s just so much that goes on, yet it all flows together seamlessly.

A super-basic summation is this: Joker escapes Arkham, kidnaps Gordon, and proceeds with his usual hijinks to lure the Batman out of hiding.  All in all, a pretty standard Joker story.

This description does not, however, do justice to the brilliance that exists within this story.  Yes, the above summary holds true, but there is so much more going on here.  First off, we see an extremely brutal and unexpected shooting, of none other than Barbara Gordon, a.k.a, Batgirl:

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I vaguely know about Oracle, so I knew this was coming, but I never expected it to happen this way.  I had no idea that Joker was responsible for paralyzing Batgirl, or that it would occur at such an innocuous moment.  Then again, such unexpected cruelty fits the Joker all too well.

While the main storyline is taking place, the comic is peppered with flashbacks to Joker’s origin, providing glimpses into his life before he became a deranged master criminal:

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An ordinary, albeit slightly unhinged, man just trying to make a living for his young wife and unborn child.

This backstory is less a slow spiral into madness and more a depiction of a series of tragic events that eventually culminate in the Joker’s creation.  A helpless man has had everything taken from him, and madness is his only escape.

I’ve always been curious about Joker’s origin.  I know there are a variety of origin stories out there, and none have been definitively called out as true, but I found this one to be especially intriguing.  Alan Moore painted a very believable picture of a man who’s down on his luck and is doing what he must to survive.  When his whole reason for living is taken from him, he is driven mad by the pain.  The “Joker” persona and physical defects are almost a random by-product, far less important than the psychological change which occurs within the man himself.

It felt believable, and that’s what made it so powerful.

Moore seems to have a certain knack for humanizing even the most despicable villains, making the reader sympathize with the very characters they’re supposed to hate.  This is never more obvious than, when realizing he’s been caught, Joker looks forlornly at Batman and accepts his fate:

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It’s so rare that you see Joker with any expression other than his trademark maniacal grin.  It was startling in a very odd way.  Of all the Batman villains, Joker is the least likely to be humanized.  He’s always been this other, a crazed man with no history, no weaknesses, and no clear motive other than madness. Seeing him show even a hint of humanity is jarring, but not unwelcome.  I always thought the Joker’s appeal lay in the mystery surrounding his character, and the ambiguity of his past.  While I like that his origin story isn’t presented as canon, and could easily be written off as one of many possible origins his psychotic mind has created, it was fun to read a possible history of such an engaging character.  Moore’s presentation of Joker is so well-crafted that the reader is left feeling as though they’ve peaked behind the curtain at his twisted psyche, while countless questions are still left unanswered.

I really have no criticisms of this comic, other than that it’s so brief.  I want to continue reading Moore’s imaginings of the Batman universe, and see his take on different characters, as well as what direction he might take Joker’s story.  I admit to not really knowing how much work Moore did on Batman other than this comic, but for the sake of his readers (namely, me) I can only hope he pops up repeatedly in other Batman comics on “the shelf”.

-Jess

Superman: The Man of Steel Volume 8

First off, major spoilers with this cover, people!  Okay not really, but come on, should you really put Superman and Wonder Woman smooching on your cover?  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great ploy to make you want to read the comic, but seriously, stop giving away plot points with your covers!!

These cover spoilers can be a bit obnoxious.  Mistah J actually removed the dust jacket from his Absolute Edition of Crisis on Infinite Earths because of the major spoilers it gave away.  I get that the editors want to draw people in, but leave a few surprises for us to unearth while reading, why don’t you?!

Okay, mini-rant over (until I read another comic with a cover spoiler and go off on the subject again). This wasn’t even really that much of a spoiler, it just irks me.

Anyway.

This comic, the eighth in the Man of Steel collection, continues Superman’s story in much the same fashion as its predecessors.  Superman faces a number of villains, deals with romantic entanglements, and overall does his whole “Earth’s mightiest hero” routine.

This collection has the distinction of including the 600th Action Comics issue, marking Superman’s 50th anniversary.  This oversized issue chronicles Superman and Wonder Woman’s secluded meeting, as well as their subsequent journey to Olympus to battle the ever-present Darkseid.

Given that this was Superman’s golden issue, it was surprising that the real hero of the day was, in fact, Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman defeats Darkseid not with brute force, but with simple reasoning.  After pointing out that Olympus is empty and destroying it serves no purpose, she convinces him to end their fight all-together for the time being.

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Um…score one for Wonder Woman.

This is the villainous god-like being responsible for so many superheroes’ troubles, and yet in waltzes Wonder Woman with her calm and collected rationale, and gets Darkseid to change his mind about fighting her and Superman.  Instead, he acknowledges that she’s right and quietly disappears from Olympus.

Yeah…Wonder Woman’s a badass to the core.  And here this was supposed to be Superman’s big issue.

Superman’s big moment comes in a later issue, in which he travels to the spacial location of the now-extinct Krypton, where exposure to high levels of Kryptonite radiation cause him to have serious hallucinations about what could have been, had the rest of his people escaped the planet.

Suffice it to say, his vision was not good.  Traveling to Earth much like Superman did, the Krypton race would rule over Earth’s population with an iron fist.

Coming out of his stupor, Superman is suddenly aware of his own people’s potential failings:

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This stark realization was profoundly moving, for Superman acknowledges for the first time that he, or those with abilities like him, has the capability to lord his strength and power over others.  While the intentions may initially be good, it still results in forceful control, something Superman has stood adamantly against.

I enjoyed seeing him acknowledge that perhaps Krypton wasn’t such the Utopian society he may have once believed.  It’s people were just as susceptible to the failings of humanity as those on Earth.  Watching Superman come to this realization made for an interesting read, and made me curious to see how he will view his role as Earth’s protector moving forward.

Oh yeah there was one other thing I wanted to point out in this post…

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CAN WE TALK ABOUT FREAKING SUPERGIRL RANDOMLY SHOWING UP FROZEN IN THE ARCTIC?? WHAT???

The last I knew **30 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT** Supergirl was killed during the Crisis storyline and as far as anyone knew, stayed dead.

I’ll admit, I knew enough to expect her to return at some point, but I had no idea it would be so soon.  No doubt her origin will have changed somewhat from what it was pre-Crisis, and I can’t wait to see what direction the writers take her story.

Poor Superman.  This post is supposed to be about him and I spent more time talking about side characters than I did the star.  Oh well, he’s such an upstanding guy, I’m sure he doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight.

If he does, I’d better go hide…

-Jess

Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast

Sometimes simply holding a book will invoke an image in my mind.  I associate the book with a specific person or a certain time in life, and my mind creates a little picture.  I had that feeling when I first picked up this comic.  The funny thing is, the image in my mind wasn’t of me, but of Mistah J.

This old, worn, nondescript little trade doesn’t have quite the same sheen that many of the other collections on “the shelf” does.  No, this one is a bit faded, as though it’s old and has been read countless times.  Checking the publication date, I learned that the trade was released in 1994.  Mistah J would have been eleven by then, and I can just picture his adorable little kid self pouring over this and every other Batman comic he could get his hands on.  It’s an incredibly sweet and endearing image.

Granted, I have no idea if it’s even remotely true.  I haven’t checked with Mistah J himself to confirm whether this trade is actually from his childhood, or just one that’s seen its better days.  Frankly, I don’t particularly care.  Although it may not be true of this particular comic, I know Mistah J’s love of comics started in his childhood, and the very idea of him reading and rereading stories like this one makes me smile.

I know, holy mush, right?  I guess I’m feeling a tad sentimental today, so shoot me.

Now, on to the actual comic that this post is supposed to be about.

Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast was a four-part miniseries (comics seemed to favor the 4-parter, from what I’m gathering) which focused on a Russian assassin journeying to Gotham City to murder ten key figures in the Star Wars program (seriously, sometimes these comics are just so 80’s it’s ridiculous).  Batman steps in and tries to help the police, the FBI, and the CIA stop this madman, dubbed the KGBeast.

Overall this was a fun, short little read.  Nothing groundbreaking, nothing too over-the-top.  Just an enjoyable collection.

Towards the end of the last issue, though, the comic started to make some pretty telling comments.  None was as thought-provoking as a conversation between Batman and one CIA agent:

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This conversation goes on to elaborate that, due to politics and quirks within the law, the Beast would walk away from murdering nearly 100 people, free to continue his acts of terrorism.

Obviously this conversation alone points out a fatal flaw in the criminal justice system; that due to a loophole a murdering psychopath could get away with an untold number of crimes.  What’s even more surprising is the way in which Batman ultimately reacts to this fact:

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Knowing that the Beast will be set free if arrested, Batman chooses instead to lock him in a room into which he’s unwittingly wandered, deep with Gotham’s sewers, and leave him there.  Batman’s commentary as he does this describes his motives perfectly, pointing out that Batman stands for justice, not, as he says, “the rules”.

Therein lies a major difference between Batman and most other heroes in the DC universe.  Others would follow the path of the law, angered and frustrated by its failings but believing it to be the best option.  Batman doesn’t share these feelings.  He knows that the law is hindered by its own rules, and chooses to act in a way that sits well with his own moral code.  Sometimes this code lines up with the law; sometimes it doesn’t.  Batman doesn’t seem to care.  He does what needs to be done to keep dangerous criminals off the streets and keep innocent people safe.  People may question or even outright disagree with his methods, but they can’t argue with his results.

These glimpses into Batman’s psyche are well-done in this trade.  They’re not the central focus, and that’s what makes them so brilliant.  The reader gets to see how Batman reacts in specific situations, able to piece together his motives on her own.  This is far more effective character development than had Batman been simply waxing philosophical about his personal beliefs, without ever having to put them into action.

As a story, Ten Nights of the Beast was more than enjoyable.  Although there were no major shakeups within the story, it still serves a vital purpose within the overall Batman story, helping to further provide insight into the corrupt world within which Batman operates, as well as allowing the reader to glean a better understanding of just how he views his role in that chaotic mess.

-Jess

Deadshot: Beginnings

Like so many DC characters, Deadshot (real name Floyd Lawton) was one I really didn’t know much about before I began reading the comics on “the shelf”.  I’ve started to realize that there are countless characters that I’m completely unfamiliar with, and who play a much bigger role in the DC universe than I ever would have guessed.

There are a handful of random issues featuring Deadshot included in this collection, and they’re all good for what they are. The main event of this trade, though, is the four-part miniseries chronicling a single Deadshot storyline.

If anyone wanted a crash course on what makes Floyd Lawton tic, this four-issue arc is the way to go.

The mini-series’ plot is pretty straightforward: Lawton, recently released from prison for his work with the Suicide Squad, receives word from his estranged wife that his son has been kidnapped.  A cryptic message is left for Lawton, instructing him to complete a job he started twenty years prior.

Kidnapping.  Blackmail.  Revenge.  These are not new themes to the comic book world.  Had this been a hero’s comic, I could have predicted just about everything that would have transpired in the story.  Therein lies the difference with this comic:

Deadshot is no hero.

The first thing he does upon learning of his son’s kidnapping is track down the man behind it and methodically fire two shots through the man’s hands.

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No warnings, no threats.  Lawton goes straight for violence, sending a message that he is not to be trifled with.  This is a far cry from anything we would ever see from the likes of Superman or even Batman.

As Deadshot hunts down the men who kidnapped his child, we also watch as his therapist, Marnie Herrs, digs into his past and learns startling truths about what lead to Lawton’s criminal behavior, truths which also tie into his son’s kidnapping.

Lawton is merciless as he exacts revenge, but the cost is great.  When all is said and done, there are few left standing, and we see an angry Amanda Waller exclaiming that she doesn’t like having to cover up Deadshot’s criminal behavior.

In a particularly perceptive panel, it is pointed out that Waller did just that when the government used Deadshot to kill a drug lord, to which Waller responds:

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This was perhaps the single-most significant panel in the entire collection, and one that points to the significance of such stories.

Too often we’re reading stories from a hero’s perspective, with a clear line drawn between right and wrong.  It’s so easy to vilify the bad guys, because in comparison to our heroes, that’s what they are.

Comics like Deadshot poke holes in the basic fabric of such stories.  As the panel above points out, is there really much difference between a government-authorized execution and a single man’s quest for revenge against murderers?  Why is one act accepted while the other is condemned?

Reading a comic from the so-called villain’s perspective is so much more enlightening, making the reader question their beliefs in what’s right and what’s wrong.  True, I still think Deadshot’s actions were extreme, but can anyone say they wouldn’t at least contemplate the same methods, had it been their own child who was kidnapped and hurt?

Deadshot and others like him may not be the most famous of all the DC characters, but their stories are often more thought-provoking and morally ambiguous than the straight-laced superheroes.  I find such characters fascinating, both as entertainment as well as a psychological study.  Deadshot may be called many things – criminal, mad, damned, cold.  No matter what though, he’s still one thing above all else: human.

-Jess

Dumbo (1941)

It’s honestly impossible to figure out where to begin with a movie like this.  There are so many elements to discuss regarding this hour-long production from Walt Disney Animation Studios.  Dumbo is filled with humor, anger, tears, and more than a hint of racism.  It’s film of countless emotions, certainly moreso than I ever remembered feeling as a child.

The story is fairly simple.  Dumbo is a newborn elephant (the term “newborn” is used loosely here, since technically he’s delivered via stork) who is ostracized for having abnormally large ears.

Firstly, I don’t get how anyone could ever possibly make fun of this little guy.  He is without a doubt one of the cutest things ever.  Seriously, look at those cute, floppy ears and that teeny tiny trunk and that adorable smile.  Now try to tell me that’s anything but precious.  If you can make fun of Dumbo, go sit in the corner and think about what a terrible person you are.

Sad and alone, Dumbo is soon befriended by Timothy Q. Mouse, a small mouse with big ambitions for his floppy-eared pal.  His goal is to make Dumbo a star attraction for the circus in which he works.

This is where the story take a sharp left turn.  Dumbo and Timothy inadvertently end up drinking water that’s been spiked with booze, and have incredibly messed up hallucinations about pink elephants:

The only explanation is that the unknown alcohol that spilled into the water bucket was absinthe because honestly, what else would cause such ridiculous imagery??

This “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence lasted waaaay too long, and makes you wonder what exactly the animators over at Disney were smoking during this film’s production.

As is always the case with these Disney movies, all is well by the end as Dumbo realizes that he can use his oversized ears to fly and ends up becoming a huge star for the circus.  It’s a slightly predictable ending to a very random, spaced out movie, and yet I can’t help it, I like it.

I’m a bit undecided as to what I believe the overall tone of the movie was meant to be.  On the one hand, there are scenes such as the “Pink Elephants” number that are so over the top and outrageous that the movie is a trippy example of what the animators could do at the time.  The entire musical sequence feels as though someone dared the artists to show all of the cool effects that could do onscreen.  The artists said, “Hey sure why not?” and nobody bothered to acknowledge that it serves absolutely no purpose to the story.  It’s crazy and psychedelic and definitely not what you would expect from a Disney film.

On the other hand, there is also a very touching, sentimental side to the story, namely in the presentation of Dumbo and his relationship with his Mother, Mrs. Jumbo.  There is simply so much emotion shown with Mrs. Jumbo that it can’t be ignored.  From her eager anticipation over becoming a mother to her fierce protectiveness of her “different” son, Mrs. Jumbo is easily one of the best “mother” images presented on film, and certainly stands out against all of the stereotypical evil-stepmother characters Disney is always so fond of producing.

The story between Mrs. Jumbo and her son, though simple, is filled with plenty of heart.  No moment is more tender, more poignant, than when Dumbo goes to visit his mother, who has been locked up after tearing apart a tent where circus hands were tormenting her child.

To this day, this remains one of the most heart-wrenching moments on film for me.  I have such strong memories of feeling so sad for both mother and son during this scene, in which they can’t even embrace and Dumbo is forced to leave his mother alone.  What’s more, it was all because Mrs. Jumbo was trying to protect her precious son.  It isn’t very often that I get this choked up about a movie, but this particular scene has always held a soft-spot in my heart, and reminds me of the kind of range Disney has with its character development.

This movie was both better and worse than I remembered.  There was more than one moment that made me question how such events could be shown in a Disney film (Dumbo and Timothy getting drunk, even accidentally, being the main one).  Yet there were also numerous moments, such as those between Dumbo and his mother, that were so tender and sweet.  These images don’t exactly tie together seamlessly, and yet that’s the movie we’re left with.  It’s imperfect, and it certainly has its odd moments, but it’s a sweet, enjoyable film, and one I would gladly watch again.

-Jess

Suicide Squad: The Nightshade Odyssey

I’ve reached the point on “the shelf” where I’m reading “volume ___” of any given comic publication.  There aren’t as many new trades popping up; instead, they are all continuations of the same storylines, following the same set of characters.

I have to admit, I rather enjoy all the continuity between comics.

What I don’t like is the fact that due to so many stories overlapping, you never truly get a complete story in any of these collections.

I was really looking forward to reading this second collection of Suicide Squad issues, having greatly enjoyed the first batch.  That excitement quickly turned to annoyance as I turned page after page only to see these obnoxious little blurbs from the editor, telling me to see “such and such publication, on sale now!” for the full story:

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Here, editor Bob even comes right out and says what we’re all thinking: yep, give them all your money if you want the full story.

Don’t get me wrong.  At this point I’m not really a comic novice.  I get how these things work.  With so many characters jumping between publications, there are bound to be numerous tie-ins that expand on a story.  What I don’t understand is the need to tease the reader with a single-panel set up, only to say, “Nuh-uh, if you want to know how this plays out you have to go out and spend more money on a separate comic.”

I like picking up a comic and reading about how it ties into something else that I’ve read.  What I don’t like is being coerced into buying additional comics in order to get a complete story.  Why can’t the comic just omit this single panel, and if the reader happens to pick up the tie-in comic, they’ll understand the larger context of the story, but won’t feel like they’re missing out if they stick to reading a single series?

It may seem like a moot point since these comics were released over 25 years ago, so obviously the editors aren’t looking to get my money, but I’m sure it’s a cheap ploy that’s still used today, and it just irks me to have to wade my way through such blatant cross-promotion.

But anyway. Back to the comic at hand.

Prior rant aside, I actually really enjoyed this comic.  It follows the same formula set up by the first volume, collecting a rag tag group of criminals (and a few morally ambiguous anti-heroes) who have been sent off on missions that are too messy or controversial for morally upright groups to handle.

This comic employs a variety of graphics to create an enjoyable reading experience.

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This is just a very cool series of panels, plain and simple.  It may not be as elegantly designed as some others (the recent Green Arrow trades come to mind) but it’s still a great layout, and one that keeps the reader engaged.

What I liked most about this comic, however, was how it expanded on the Squad’s overall setup and gave us more details about how certain people came to join up.

Some, like Captain Boomerang, didn’t really have a choice.  It was either this or rot in prison.  Others, like Vixen, volunteered for the project, out of their own personal desires for justice or, sometimes, vengeance.

The most intriguing origin story presented in this trade is the one given the most attention: that of Nightshade.

Nightshade’s story is detailed in a Secret Origins issue that is also collected here, as the reader learns that Nightshade joined the Suicide Squad in the hope that the group would help rescue her brother from her home world.

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Her entire backstory is too well-told in the comic for me to summarize here, but suffice it to say, her character is well developed and her motives are clear.  Considering there are many characters across the entire DC universe for whom this does not hold true, Nightshade is a surprise.

My only gripe is that her story is not completed in this trade, and I can only hope and pray that Mistah J has the continuation of this storyline somewhere on “the shelf.”

If not, I may have to take up drinking.

Also, I may be getting too attached to the comics again.

Like so many other recent collections on “the shelf”, The Nightshade Odyssey is not a self-contained story.  This collection is loosely centered on one or two main storylines, but its beginning and end extend far past the pages of this book.  I’m finally beginning to adjust to this type of prolonged storytelling (yes, it takes some adjusting. I’m a girl who would generally sit and read an entire novel in one sitting.  Having to wait god-knows how long to get a complete story? It’s torturous, let me tell you.)  Not only that, but I’m finally starting to really appreciate the slow, gradual style.  New bits of information are given out piece by piece, ever so slowly, but when a connection can be made between something you’re reading now and something that you read about in the past, it makes the story feel so much more engaging, as though it’s all happening right now.

It’s possible that, once again, I’m reading too much into it.  It doesn’t really matter though.  These stories are enjoyable to so many people for any variety of reasons.  It doesn’t really matter why a person likes them; it just matters that they keep wanting to read more.

Now somebody get me the next volume of Suicide Squad before I have a meltdown.

-Jess