The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

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Sometimes I really wish I could be a fly on the wall during the pitches for some of these Disney films. I like to imagine it went a little something like this:

“Hey, what if we did a sort of riches-to-rags story where a spoiled prince winds up having to rely on peasants to save him?”

“There could be something there.  We’ve had a lot of success focusing on character-building story arcs lately.”

“And then the prince should be turned into a llama.”

“A llama?? I don’t think…”

“And he should be voiced by David Spade.”

“Wait, what? I don’t know if David Spade would be…”

“It’ll be brilliant. I’m gonna go write the script right now”

*5 Minutes Later*

“Okay, I’ve got it. There’s also going to be this super old lady bad guy, and a funny, dumb henchman who can talk to squirrels.  Also maybe a squirrel who can make balloon animals.”

-“Whatever, just run with it. It can’t be more emotionally damaging that The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

I also imagine a lot of day-drinking was involved.

In all seriousness, I’m actually pretty fond of this movie. I just can’t begin to fathom how this was pitched as an actual Disney movie. Truth be told, not much about it feels inherently Disney.  For a long time, I actually assumed it was made by DreamWorks or one of the other competing animation studios.  It just doesn’t quite have that Disney magic that I’ve come to expect.  Then again, plenty of other Disney films are missing that magic as well, and at least this is a good movie, so who am I to judge?

The Emperor’s New Groove follows Emperor Kuzco, a spoiled teenager who believes the entire world revolves around him (which, when you rule a country, I guess it sort of does).  His so-obviously-evil-how-has-he-not-figured-it-out-yet advisor is fired, and decides to murder Kuzco so that she can assume the throne.  Rather than poisoning him though, she gives him a potion that turns him into a llama, and thus the crux of the film.  Kuzco winds up on the farm of a lovable and kind-hearted farmer named Pacha (whose house Kusco is planning on destroying for his own selfish means), and Kuzco must rely on Pacha to get him back to his castle so that he can reverse the spell and be turned back into his egotistical self.

Most of the film, I end up questioning poor Pacha’s trusting heart.  Kuzco tells Pacha that in exchange for getting him back to his castle, he won’t tear down Pacha’s home (Kuzco lies, shocker).  Then Pacha has to repeatedly save Kuzco because he’s so completely inept at surviving.  Pacha is the quintessential good guy, while Kuzco you just kind of want to punch in the face.  You don’t even care all that much that Izma (the aforementioned evil-looking antagonist of the film) and her bumbling sidekick Kronk are trying to kill him.

Kuzco is arguably the weak spot of the film, which is a bit sad since he’s basically the main character. To his credit, David Spade does justice to the role, delivering his lines with his signature sarcasm and humor that’s kept him in a career all these years. Still, even he can’t save the truly unlikable Kuzco.  The guy is basically irredeemable for 90% of the movie, only proving that he’s not a complete jerk in the final act.  In contrast, the rest of the characters are enjoyable and entertaining.  Even Izma is fun, despite being the villain. She’s saddled with such a dope of a henchman that you almost feel sorry for her.

I said almost.

The fact is, the film just did too good of a job making Kuzco despicable. You hate him in the beginning because you’re supposed to, but that feeling sticks with you throughout most of the film.  I like him in the end, but it’s a begrudging shift, and a part of me still thinks he’s a jerk for all the things he did.  His humor is often derived from making fun of others, whereas the other characters are funny without having to be cruel (yes, even Izma).  Add on to that the fact that there are no grand songs or sweeping panoramic views as a character discovers something profound about himself, and the movie just doesn’t quite feel like a Disney original.  It’s still a great movie, but it’s missing the magic that earlier films like Aladdin or The Lion King had. Maybe it’s the musical element, or maybe it’s just the balance of humor with more serious moments.  The Emperor’s New Groove is an entertaining movie, but it doesn’t stick with you the way other Disney films do.  Even so, it’s well worth watching if you’re looking for a light-hearted movie that never delves too deeply into “dark” territory. There’s nothing wrong with a little fluffy escapism every now and then.

-Jess

 

Dinosaur (2000)

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After a brief respite, I’m resuming my coverage of Disney movies in chronological order of release. My posts are a few behind, as I’ve continued watching one per week even though I haven’t posted about one in over a month. Oh well, just more for me to write about now, right? At least I’ve removed the shackles of a set posting schedule, so now I can be a bit more free-form, writing and posting whenever I feel like it.

There’s a certain symmetry to this post, as this past weekend I attended the Jurassic World exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for my birthday (I am perpetually 5 years old and unashamed…also, there were way too many prepositions in that sentence for my liking. Oh well).  I could write an entire post on the exhibit (maybe I will, in fact), but for now let’s focus on the Disney film. I just felt like mentioning the exhibit because it was fun and awesome and kinda sorta related to the post at hand. Also hello, happy birthday to me!

Okay, moving on.

I’ll admit, I didn’t have many memories of this movie going in. I knew I had seen it in theaters when it was first released, a bit of a shocker given that I was right on the cusp of being “too old” and “too cool” for Disney (thankfully I relapsed).  I knew I had seen it that one time, and likely at least one other time after that, but I couldn’t remember the plot for the life of me.  I knew dinosaurs were involved (I’m incredibly astute, aren’t I?) but characters, plotlines, scenes? Nothing.

It’s a shame really, because as it turns out this film is pretty fantastic.

Dinosaur follows the tale of Aladar, an Iguanodon who is separated from his family as an egg, only to wind up on a remote island where he is raised by a family of lemurs.

{FUN FACT:  Although never named in the film, the island Aladar winds up on is Madagascar. How do we know? Because all lemur species in the wild are found on Madagascar and nowhere else in the world.   Don’t ask me where I pick up these random bits of trivia. I honestly have no idea myself.}

Aladar and his adoptive family’s world is turned upside down when massive meteors strike the planet, destroying the terrain and leaving countless creatures either dead, or on a desperate search for food and water.  The ensuing film follows Aladar and family as they join up with a herd of dinosaurs who are traversing dangerous terrain as they attempt to reach their breeding grounds, a lush paradise that has miraculously remained untouched by the recent natural disasters.

Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way: if this plot sounds a little too familiar, that’s because it’s basically the exact same plot as The Land Before Time.  That being said, I’m choosing not to fault Disney for telling this story, because theirs is so much more realistic and heart-wrenching than The land Before Time.

This realism is in large part due to the animation style.  The dinosaurs and all other creatures are CGI, but all of the landscapes and background are live-action.  Rather than creating a distinct line between two worlds when various cinematic styles are combined (say, in Mary Poppins), Dinosaur actually succeeds in making their CGI characters seem more realistic by placing them on a live action backdrop.  The sense that you’re watching something real makes the film so much more enjoyable than if it was just another animated film.

The story itself is something that may have gone over my head as a child, but can be appreciated so much more as an adult.  There are so many subtle cues in this film, showing Aladar’s compassion and bravery without ever needing to pander to the audience by having another character explain that he’s kind. His actions are allowed to speak for themselves, with the film proving time and again that kindness and teamwork can mean the difference between life and death.

I wish I knew what this movie didn’t stick with me more as a child.  Watching it as an adult fills me with a newfound appreciation, not only for the brilliant combination of animation and live-action, but also in the writers’ wonderful storytelling.  The film may focus on dinosaurs, but there is a humanity to each character that transcends the story being told on the surface.  Dinosaur serves as an allegory for life, with characters representing nearly anyone we may come across in life: the wise older people who may not seem very helpful, but who can nevertheless be a valuable asset if the need arises; the loving family who takes someone in and loves them as their own, no matter how different they are; and the cruel, headstrong know-it-all whose hubris will inevitably be his downfall.

Am I stretching a bit? Perhaps just a little.  Still, there is far more depth and emotion in this film than in some of Disney’s other endeavors, and certainly deserves more recognition than it receives.  Maybe the live-action element leaves people uncertain as to whether to classify it as an animated film or not (not that there should be a question. Disney considers it part of their official animated canon; that’s good enough for me).  It’s a unique film, employing a style Disney wouldn’t replicate again until The Jungle Book released earlier this year (oddly enough, I consider that a live-action film, as does Disney. Go figure).  If they were going to combine live-action film and CGI as they did, I’m glad they chose Dinosaur as the forerunner.  The film is beautifully made, and the filmed backgrounds help lend realism and credibility to an already historical film.  This style would never have worked with a cartoonish style, and I shudder to think what could have been done had some of Disney’s other films employed such backgrounds. As it stands, I can’t picture Dinosaur having been made any other way, and am grateful that, even having been made in a period of declining Disney animated film quality, Dinosaur stands out as a shining example of a wonderfully made film.

-Jess

 

A Change of Pace

Having written this blog for well over a year, it’s been a pretty massive part of my life. In that time, I’ve read over 300 DC trades, and written a post about each and every one.  Recently I’ve begun to hit a wall, feeling as though this blog is becoming a full-time job. Seeing as how I already have one of those, I’ve decided that it’s time to take a step back.

I’m still going to use my DC Continuity page to keep track of each trade I read, but I’m going to stop writing about each and every one. Given the pace at which I want to read, it’s just no longer feasible to write a 1,000+ word post about each trade.  I love writing, but it was just starting to be a little too much work.  I’d rather read all the time and just write more sporadically. I don’t always have something fascinating to say about a trade, so this way I can just write when I feel like I have something worth while to contribute.

I’m still a bit undecided as to how frequently I may return to posting. The once-a-day thing is behind me; I just can’t keep up with that anymore. I’m not sure exactly where I’ll go from here. What I do know is that this should be a hobby, not a job, and I plan on approaching it as such from now on.

One thing I’m certain of is that I’ll definitely still be reading comics, and will continue to read the many posts published by those with far more comics knowledge than me.  Your posts are always very much appreciated, as are your comments on my own posts.

My journey through “the shelf” is continuing; I’m loving that and really want to see it through to the end. Rather than document every moment on here though, I’m going to sit back for a bit and just enjoy the journey.

-Jess

Gotham City Sirens: Volume 1

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A while back, I requested a comic that focused on Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn living together and going on adventures. I thought this was a pipe dream, a fangirl fantasy that would never actually come to be. Silly Jess, never underestimate the comics world. As it turns out, I got my wish, with this comic literally following the exploits of Gotham’s favorite femme fatales as they move in together and go on adventures…more or less.

The girls are trying to go straight in the world, but of course are constantly pulled back into the gritty underworld of Gotham.  Whether being framed for crimes they didn’t commit or tying each other up and demanding information, a standard day for these three always consists of some sort of hero and/or criminal behavior.

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There are plenty of “downtime” scenes, but this isn’t a sitcom in comic form.  The girls kick plenty of butt in each and every issue, making for a surprisingly decent set of stories. Then again, they’re written by Paul Dini, who just has a knack for writing these characters as strong, fierce women with the perfect personal failings to make them feel relatable, even when donning outrageous uniforms and engaging in some serious butt-kicking.

Dini’s writing felt spot-on, making each character unique and fun, while also making it clear that you don’t want to get on their bad sides.  While the writing was perfect and fun and expanded on the characters wonderfully, the artwork was sadly lacking.  It wasn’t poorly drawn or colored by any means, but unfortunately the artists fell into the same old trap of writing an woman-centric comic specifically for the male gaze.

What do I mean by that?

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This. This is what I mean. This isn’t an isolated incident, which could be overlooked. Time and time again this comic graces us with images of each character’s butt and boobs, emphasizing them in the most ridiculous panel layouts imaginable.  Why is Poison Ivy shown from the waist down, from behind? This takes the whole “artistic angle” concept and morphs it to fit what the artists believe their viewers want to see. Sure, I’m sure there are plenty of male readers out there who might pick up this comic for the sole purpose of seeing a few scantily clad, overdrawn characters, but quite frankly, that’s what the internet and fan-art is for.  The comics should be about the story and the artwork, and for me these images were far too common.  They took me out of the story, and I found myself rolling my eyes throughout most of this trade, knowing that Ivy, Harley, and Selina would no doubt be posed in the most ludicrous positions possible whenever I turned the page.

In summation: story and artwork good. Overt sexualization of your women characters for the sake of being “sexy”, bad.

Thankfully, Dini’s stories were interesting enough to salvage this comic for me. Yes, the artwork was frustrating beyond belief, but his stories drew upon countless pieces of continuity, helping ground the issues in Gotham’s lore while still being able to exist on their own.

One of my favorite throwback storylines follows up on Selina’s sister Maggie.  This comic summarizes everything that happened to her with Black Mask (helpful, since that particular trade isn’t currently on “the shelf”).  Distraught over what she’s suffered and essentially having broken from reality, Maggie believes her sister is possessed by a cat demon, and that it’s up to her to save her.

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Maggie herself becomes possessed by an “angel” who makes her much more powerful, and tries to take down Selina.  Selina makes it out alive, but her sister is still on the run, determined to save her sibling from the demon possessing her.  I enjoyed the reference to a smaller side character, one who doesn’t pop up outside of a Catwoman comic too often.  Dini manages to tie his stories into the main continuity really well, expanding on storylines that haven’t been followed up on in a while and helping make a more complete picture, even for smaller characters.  It’s a skill not all writers have, but I like that previous relationships and alliances are referenced in the story, adding a sense of history to everything that’s going on.

Overall, the stories here are great, and I’m looking forward to reading the second trade.  That being said, I’m also hoping that the artists change, because I can’t stand looking at these girls’ awkwardly contorted bodies all for the sake of getting their butt and boobs visible in the same panel. NOBODY STANDS LIKE THAT EVER, LEAST OF ALL WHEN THEY’RE STRIKING A DEFENSIVE/OFFENSIVE FIGHTING POSE.  I don’t understand why certain artists can’t grasp this concept. Seriously, I’ve tried to mimic some of the poses I’ve seen in comics before (in the comfort of my totally empty living room. I do have some dignity, after all), and they’re completely ridiculous.  They don’t make sense for anything, other than that maybe it creates an appealing visual for anyone in the vicinity (at least maybe when other people do it. I just fall over).

Am I ranting? Absolutely. This is just a major pet peeve of mine though, and frustrates me that the comics industry is completely alienating HALF of their potential readership.  I’ve vented on this poor trade’s post long enough though, and since I know I could go on for another 2,000 words, I’ll stop now.

My compromise for this? Let them make a Batman: The Animated Series spin-off based on this comic, using the original artwork style. Now THAT I would watch the heck out of, please and thank you.

-Jess

Batman: Streets of Gotham – Hush Money

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I really love Paul Dini’s take on Batman. Even when it’s not Bruce Wayne, there’s just something about Dini’s writing style that feels inherently Batman-esque.  Maybe it’s the way he balances brooding anti-hero with moments of levity. Maybe it’s the requisite Harley Quinn cameo, always a bright spot in his stories.  Whatever it is, Dini’s Batman just appeals to me.  It may not be Bruce, but it’s hugely entertaining.

This story focuses on the aftermath of Bruce’s death, only this time it’s emphasizing the return of Tommy Elliott, alias Hush.  Having survived his fall in the Bat-cave (duh) he resurfaces, and uses his newly bought Bruce Wayne face to collect money from various Wayne businesses around the world.  Unfortunately, Bruce’s reappearance sets off some red flags and he finds himself in the clutches of an old foe.

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Catwoman knows this isn’t the real Bruce Wayne, but she has a plan in mind to use Tommy as a scapegoat so that she can free captured animals.  Tommy plans on fighting Catwoman’s henchmen and escaping on his own; of course, this plan is soon foiled when he learns their true identities.

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Hush is captured and kept in a secluded cell where he can’t hurt anyone.  This is Gotham though, and no one stays behind bars for long. Hush escapes one chaotic night and addresses the public almost immediately; surprisingly, he intentions are a bit…bizarre.

Hush begins spending Bruce’s money like crazy, giving it away to various charitable organizations in an effort to restore Gotham to its former glory.  Fearful that Hush will bankrupt both Wayne Enterprises and Batman, an ultimatum (re: threat) is made to Hush, to ensure that he’s allowed to roam free without spending money that isn’t his.

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With an unstable but satisfactory truce met, Hush is allowed to continue his charade as Bruce Wayne, perpetuating the belief that Bruce is still alive.  No doubt this will all come to a head soon enough, especially with Gotham’s underworld building up to something much bigger beneath the surface.

It’s a bizarre conglomeration in the Bat-world.  Hush is Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson is Batman. Robin is such a pain in the butt that I actually miss Jason Todd.  Everything’s topsy-turvy, yet Dini’s take on it all feels a bit more reassuring for the world of Batman.  Perhaps it’s just because the comic isn’t about Dick taking on the role of Batman; here it’s just assumed, with him seeming at least a bit more comfortable in the role. Removing this from the central storyline helps propel the plot and make the story as a whole feel entirely more “Batman” in nature.  It could very easily swing back around and focus on Dick’s insecurities in taking up the cowl, but for now I’d much rather read about him seeming at least somewhat comfortable in the role. If nothing else, I can pretend for a moment that Bruce is really back, and enjoy a true Batman story again.

-Jess

Batwoman: Elegy

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Fair warning: I’m probably going to spend this post geeking out a bit, because this trade is everything I could ever hope for in a Batwoman comic. I absolutely love it, so be prepared for some pretty hardcore fangirling.

Going into this trade, I knew very little about Kate Kane. I hadn’t read anything about her backstory; other than the fact that she had a prior relationship with Renee Montoya, I knew virtually nothing about who she was outside of the cowl.  Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III joined forces to change all that, creating a storyline that is illuminating and truly beautiful.

Williams III’s artwork is absolutely mesmerizing.  He creates flowing, full-page spreads that not only tell a beautiful story, but that fit the tone of a given scene. When Batwoman is in the middle of a battle, the page is sharp, with distinct, dark coloring and splashes of bold reds. In contrast, he switches to more muted, less aggressive images when more domestic scenes are playing out.  The effect is entrancing, helping further pull the reader into the story, setting the mood for each scene.

Greg Rucka’s story has all of the subtle genius I could ever hope for.  I was surprised to find how well Rucka was able to write not only a female superhero, but a lesbian superhero, without once falling back onto cliches or stereotypes.  Instead, he writes a fully realized character who stands on her own, without needing the support or backup of long-standing characters like Batman. Everyone’s favorite dark knight pops up in the very beginning, essentially to remind the reader that all of this takes place in Gotham, and then poof! he’s gone.

And you know what? I didn’t miss him.  Kate Kane’s story was just that good.

Her story picks up after she was stabbed by the fanatic followers of the Religion of Crime.  She learns they have a new leader coming to town, and she vows to find out why this woman is journeying to Gotham.  Of course, this is Gotham, so this isn’t your typical religious zealot. No, instead, this woman has her own brand of crazy to bring to the table.

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Alice isn’t out to get Kate, but instead hopes to rule Gotham, and plans on unleashing a toxic chemical over the city to kill millions.  Kate vows to stop this, but along the way she learns of a unique connection between herself and Alice, one which ties back to a prophesy made about her long ago:

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At this point the comic takes a step back, and reveals Kate Kane’s backstory. It turns out she had a twin, Beth, whom she believed was killed alongside their mother when she was a young girl.  Kate learns that Beth is actually Alice, only to watch her seemingly fall to her death.  The implications that her sister was alive all this time haven’t fully set in yet, but surely Kate will be dealing with this for some time to come.

What I love most about Kate’s story is that although she very easily could, she never plays the victim. She is always in control of her own life, making her own decisions and standing up for herself.

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Whether it’s against an attacker, an ignorant military system, or her own father, she stays true to who she is and does what she believes to be right.  It’s sometimes a rash move, but at least she honors her convictions, which allows her to fit right into the Bat-family. Of course, she feels entirely separate from Batman and company, which oddly enough, I sort of love.  She views the Bat signal as a call to arms for like-minded individuals to do their part and take back their city. She approaches it from a militaristic angle, bringing a new perspective to a team that has otherwise been led and taught by one man.  I love that she’s more independent that the rest of the Bat-crew, acting on her own while still fighting for the same cause.  She may be her own character, but there’s the perfect balance between individuality and being a part of something bigger.

I can’t praise this comic enough. Between the gorgeous artwork and the thought-provoking story, this story arc was truly mesmerizing.  If Mistah J doesn’t already have the continuation of the story on “the shelf”, I’m going to have to go hunt it down myself, because I need to know what happens next.  It’s been a while since a new character has so fully grabbed my attention, but Batwoman has done just that. She’s everything I want to read about in a kick-ass superhero comic.  She’s strong, independent, and too stubborn for her own good, with personal failings that only help to make her more endearing and relatable.  Her story is clearly just beginning, but I’m already hooked.

-Jess

Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn

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I went into this trade with some trepidation. I wondered (and worried) what I would think of a Batman comic without Bruce Wayne.  The last time this happened (in Knightfall) we were stuck with Azbats for entirely too long.  Knowing that Grant Morrison wrote this story gave me a little hope though, expecting something twisted and different.

My reaction after reading this is basically on par with what I expected, perhaps erring on the side of disappointed.  I knew I’d miss Bruce, constantly comparing poor Dick Grayson to his mentor at every turn.  Dick makes a decent Batman, but he’s just not the real Batman.  I like that Morrison doesn’t try to make Dick a carbon copy of Bruce. I don’t want to forget who’s behind the cowl, and I like being able to tell that the dark knight is someone different.  Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and I like that Morrison lets Dick dive headfirst into the role of Batman without forcing him to emulate Bruce too much.

That being said, a lot of the comic still felt like Dick was simply pretending in the role. A lot of this had to do with the brotherly bickering that filled the pages. Damien has adopted the role of Robin (with Tim apparently out of the scene for now…no real explanation is given in the trade).  Unfortunately, Damien doesn’t listen too well, and doesn’t seem to have much respect for the man who ought to be his mentor.

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Had this been an isolated incident, I could have overlooked it as merely an adjustment period for the dynamic duo, as they struggle to adapt to working with one another.  Unfortunately, this seems to be a prevailing theme among the Bat-boys, with all of them practically (and sometimes literally) at each others’ throats.

As though two brothers aren’t enough, we get Jason Todd thrown into the mix, returned in yet another costume, this time a redesigned Red Hood.

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He gets himself a handy dandy scarred sidekick (because when you’re a masked vigilante, it’s what you do) and tries to become the new Batman, trying to win over the city and accomplish what Batman never could: the eradication of crime. Don’t get me wrong, I usually enjoy a good Jason Todd story, but I’m kind of wishing he would just stick with a title/costume for more than three issues. He doesn’t really have a superhero/villain identity; he’s just Jason Todd in a bunch of different uniforms.  I can understand the appeal of using him – he adds another layer to the family drama bubbling up over at Wayne Manor, with 3 various Robins all fighting for the title of the man they viewed as a father figure.

It wasn’t a bad story by any means, it just felt like it could have been a bit better.  Jason and Dick’s interactions make them seem much younger than they actually are, feeling as though they’re all still trying to figure out how to do the whole adult vigilante thing without Bruce there to guide them.

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Maybe that was the whole point, but for me, I just found myself missing Bruce’s calm surety. Yes, he questioned his actions sometimes, but for the most part he knew who he was and why he did what he did; in comparison, Dick’s Batman feels too adolescent and unsure of himself to strike the same sort of fear in the hearts of Gotham’s underworld.

I’m not hating on Dick Grayson. Of all the candidates, he was the best choice to take up the mantle. I just hate change, especially when it means changing the man behind such a core character as Batman. The story is okay, but it felt too removed to even feel like a Batman story.  Maybe it’s meant to stress the fact that this is a new Batman, with new villains and a new story, but I found myself missing the old story far too much to be fully invested in what was going on.  I’m still eager to see where it all goes, but I can’t help but hope Bruce makes a triumphant return sooner rather than later.  It’s just not the same without him.

-Jess