Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Artists: Eddy Barrows, Eduardo Pansica, Trevor McCarthy, Geraldo Borges
Collects: Nightwing #1-7 (2011-12)
Published: DC, 2012; $14.99
If Scott Snyder’s aim in Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls was to revise Batman franchise history at the macro level – by introducing the idea that Gotham City could be controlled for decades, without Batman’s knowledge, by a secret society of criminals – then Nightwing, Vol. 1: Traps and Trapezes operates at another extreme. It revises franchise history as well but at the micro level, by exploring the relationships between Nightwing (Dick Grayson) and the characters of his circus roots. The book’s strength lies not in the revelation of major “secrets” from Dick’s past (what secrets are revealed come as no surprise to anyone who has already read Court of Owls), but rather in its new supporting cast members and the catalyzing effect they have on the main character.
The most interesting of the new characters is Raya, a redheaded woman who looks strikingly like Dick’s on-again/off-again love interest, Barbara Gordon. When Haly’s Circus returns to Gotham City and Dick sees Raya for the first time since his parents’ death, sparks fly between them instantly. (The book insists, ridiculously, that Dick’s parents were killed five years ago, which would make Dick around 19 or 20 years old – despite the fact that he and Raya are clearly portrayed as being in their mid- to late twenties, at the youngest.) In this respect, Traps and Trapezes is the polar opposite of a book like Batman: The Dark Knight – Golden Dawn, which does a comparatively poor job of retrofitting a new character into the history of an established one. Golden Dawn’s greatest flaw was that, for all its efforts to play up Dawn Golden’s importance to Bruce Wayne in scenes set during their childhood, her characterization in the story’s present was positively nonexistent. Where Traps and Trapezes succeeds, by contrast, is in its making Raya an integral part of the story’s forward momentum, rather than dwelling on her and Dick’s past relationship.
The fact that Raya has little in common with Barbara Gordon, apart from her looks, is an important element to the story. Their differences are underscored when Barbara guest-stars (as Batgirl) in the book’s fourth issue; whereas Raya teases Dick about mundane topics (his never having seen The Godfather, for example), Barbara is more interested in Dick’s feelings and emotional well-being. Although Dick seems to think he’s happy with Raya, there’s an obvious distance behind her beauty – even before the story’s reveal that she is reluctantly helping Saiko, a mysterious assassin who serves as the book’s primary antagonist. The story’s focus on Dick, rather than his superhero alter ego, is underlined by the fact that Saiko is trying to kill the former; at first, he fails to even realize that Dick and Nightwing are the same person. In this sense Saiko is fairly analogous to the antagonist of Court of Owls, who initially hunts Bruce Wayne, not Batman.
The similarity of the threats Batman and Nightwing face in these two books is revealing in regard to both characters. The most compelling element of Court of Owls is its protagonist’s stubborn hubris – despite mounting evidence, Batman refuses to believe that there could possibly be a secret society at work in “his” city – and that element is largely absent from Traps and Trapezes. Dick whiles away weeks of story time without investigating either Saiko’s attempts on his life or the secret history of Haly’s Circus, despite its being hinted at by several other characters – a very un-Batman-like mode of operations. This is perhaps most surprising because Dick actually took up the role of Batman for a number of issues, some of which are collected in Batman: The Black Mirror (which, this book reminds us, remains within post-New 52 continuity).
In fact, the very point of this story seems to be to differentiate Dick’s crime-fighting methods from Batman’s, and in that respect the characters’ vastly different approaches to problem-solving accomplish the task. Traps and Trapezes ends with Dick’s repudiation of the nostalgia that fuels the very ethos of Batman’s mission: “We’re not defined by our tragedies or our turning points,” he thinks as he speeds away from the Batcave on his motorcycle, “we’re defined by the choices we make in the face of them.” If Batman’s war on crime is motivated by revenge, then, it would seem that Dick’s isn’t so much “motivated” at all as it is simply reactionary.
Although writer Kyle Higgins establishes Batman’s fixation on the past as problematic, he resists portraying Dick’s approach as faultless by comparison. It’s the character’s inattention to the past, in fact, which brings about so many problems in the present and keeps him relatively in the dark until Saiko conveniently explains himself in an expository info-dump near the story’s end. And then there’s the final scene, in which Dick angrily confronts Bruce Wayne in the Batcave only for Bruce to lay him out with a single punch. (The same scene also appears, from Bruce’s perspective, at the end of Court of Owls.) There’s more to Bruce’s actions than a lack of anger management – by punching Dick, he knocks out a tooth embedded with an alloy which would have transformed Dick into a mindless killer – but his methodology is disturbing, and Dick’s unquestioning acceptance of it is enough to indicate that he has yet to separate himself fully from the ways in which Batman traditionally operates.
The fact that this is the only scene in the book in which Bruce Wayne actually appears doesn’t help; more interaction between Dick and Bruce throughout could have given the scene more impact for both characters and made for a more thematically coherent climax. It’s not the plot’s only misstep, either – about halfway through the book, the story comes to a grinding halt with a ridiculously out-of-place issue about a rhyming demon who comes for the soul of a circus clown. It’s unclear at this early point in the series whether plot developments like this one are actually laying the seeds for future stories, just as it’s hard to tell whether the shakiness of Dick’s outlook toward his crime-fighting career is a character flaw Higgins plans for him to work through in future volumes, or just the result of lazy writing. Traps and Trapezes has enough strengths, though, that I look forward to searching out the answers to those questions in the next volume.
Saturday, February 7, 2015
Artists: John Byrne, John Romita Jr.
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #138-143 and Uncanny X-Men Annual #4 (1980-81)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $19.99
Although The Dark Phoenix Saga is most often cited as the high-water mark of Chris Claremont’s comics-writing career (and, in particular, of his much-celebrated collaboration on The Uncanny X-Men with artist John Byrne), it’s a story of relatively little social force, a fantasy more in line with the likes of Star Wars than with the more politically radical genre narratives whose attitudes Claremont would seek to emulate in his later work. Of greater political and ideological interest, I think – especially given the allegorical weight the X-Men franchise has been invested with in recent decades – are the issues Claremont wrote directly afterward, collected in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Here we see Claremont’s writing in a state of transition, grasping at the social consciousness he would achieve a year later with X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, and yet also falling noticeably short of it.
At the heart of Days of Future Past is a two-part storyline set, in part, in a dystopian future in which mutants have been hunted nearly to extinction by giant robots known as Sentinels. The last remaining X-Men – Kate Pryde, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Franklin Richards, and the red-haired psychic Rachel – conclude that their only hope is to change the past, and so Kate is vaulted back through time to prevent a political assassination in the series’ present day. Now possessing the body of her younger self – who has only recently joined the team’s ranks, as “Sprite” – Kate leads the X-Men in thwarting an attack on the U.S. Capitol, saving the life of the anti-mutant Senator Robert Kelly in the process. Whether Kate has succeeded in changing the future, however, is left an open question. (Later storylines, beginning with 1990’s nearly unreadable X-Men: Days of Future Present, would reinforce time and again that she did not.)
The reader is reminded with some frequency that events in the “present day” take place on October 31, 1980, described by the narrator as “the final Friday of one of the closest, hardest-fought presidential elections in recent memory.” And yet, despite setting the story at such a culturally charged moment, Claremont misses the opportunity to make anything more than a vague political statement. The only presidential candidate introduced to the reader is Senator Kelly, and what role his McCarthy-esque anti-mutant hearings play in his presidential campaign is never made clear. Ronald Reagan appears not once, although, as in real life, he would apparently win this election (he appears much later in Claremont’s run on this series, in 1986’s Uncanny X-Men #201).
Confusing things even further, a brief epilogue set a month after the election depicts the president re-activating the Sentinel project. The president appears only in shadow in this scene, although he is obviously (and, by historical necessity, must be) Jimmy Carter – who, if he has indeed lost the election to Reagan, could not realistically possess the political influence necessary for such a move. The attempt to conceal Carter’s identity is all the more baffling considering the fact that he had made a full appearance in the series just a few years earlier, at the height of the original Phoenix Saga.
Any potential for a coherent political commentary in Days of Future Past is thus lost in the book’s ambivalent attitude towards real-life figures and events. Furthermore, I think a great deal of its falling short in this sense can be contributed to artist John Byrne. While he’s credited as “co-plotter” on the issues collected here, the partnership between Claremont and Byrne had in fact all but broken down by this point, with Byrne often drawing scenes in direct contradiction to Claremont’s scripts; the issue following the two-part “Days of Future Past” would be his last on the title. One of the major contributing factors to the book’s confused politics, I would argue, is Byrne’s avowed refusal to draw figures from real life: the aforementioned Jimmy Carter appearance was in fact ghost-penciled by inker Terry Austin. Byrne was notorious, as well, for using his favorite characters (especially Wolverine, who Claremont didn’t care for and planned at one point to write out of the book) as vehicles for his own right-wing views.
It should come as fairly little surprise, then, that a book “co-plotted” by Claremont and Byrne would possess something less than clear political sensibilities. Nor should it surprise us that the story’s most pointed political statements occur only in its script. A caption accompanying an otherwise innocuous establishing shot of the Pentagon, for example, ends with a surprisingly perceptive diagnosis of America’s renewed militarism at the turn of the 1980s:
This is the Pentagon, the largest building of its type in the world, command headquarters of the mightiest military machine that world has ever known. To many people, it is more truly representative – for good or ill – of the reality of America than the White House or Congress just across the Potomic [sic] River.
Claremont addresses the post-Tonkin breakdown of the checks-and-balances system even more pointedly later, in this exchange between civilians fleeing the story’s climactic battle: “‘Good grief! That sound – someone’s bombed the Capitol!’ ‘Yeah – and it was probably the White House that did it!’” As in the narration, Claremont’s politics begin to come through only where Byrne is literally unable to erase them.
While initial printings of Days of Future Past included only Uncanny X-Men issues 141 and 142, an additional five issues have been included since the publication of the 2004 trade paperback edition; the added content begins three issues before the book’s two-part title story, and ends with the issue that follows. Despite the inclusion of a John Romita, Jr.-drawn Annual that relates only tangentially to the rest of the book, the new contents make for a more thematically coherent narrative than in previous editions. The first issue collected not only wraps up The Dark Phoenix Saga with Jean Grey’s funeral and the departure of Cyclops from the team, but serves also as a flashback-filled recap of the franchise’s nearly twenty-year history to this point. It ends with the arrival of a new student to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters: Kitty Pryde, whose character arc forms the crux of the 2004-and-beyond editions of Days of Future Past. The effect is to de-emphasize the dystopian and alternate-future aspects of the title story itself; newly framed, rather, “Days of Future Past” serves as a super-powered bildungsroman starring Kitty Pryde.
However, this shift in focus also further reduces the impact of a story already weakened by its artist’s failure to endorse the politics of its script. As we can see from later texts, Claremont’s politics would only become clear after he became the sole plotter of his work; in fact, as if to herald what was eventually to come, the first issue of Uncanny X-Men following Byrne’s departure was drawn (but not co-plotted) by Brent Anderson, who would go on to collaborate with Claremont on God Loves, Man Kills. We might well view Days of Future Past as not just the end of the Claremont/Byrne era, then, but also as the start of a progressive sensibility that would be fully realized only in the years that followed.
Saturday, June 14, 2014
Artists: Bill Everett, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood
Collects: Daredevil #1-11 (1964-65)
Published: Marvel, 2003; $49.99 (HC), $24.99 (TPB)
A lot changed at Marvel Comics in the first half of the 1960s. At the beginning of the decade, the company was still mostly publishing science fiction, horror, war, and romance comics in the incredibly tame post-Comics Code vein. In 1961 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted the Fantastic Four, and within three years, Lee and his various collaborators’ new creations were selling comics in numbers unseen for decades. Daredevil, who premiered in 1964, was among the last of Stan Lee’s major Silver Age co-creations. And yet, at many points in Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil, Vol. 1 – which collects the character’s first eleven appearances – the series feels like it could just as well have been among the first.
Some aspects of the character’s early issues feel downright proto-Marvel. The first issue, in which teenager Matt Murdock’s other senses are enhanced after a chemical accident leaves him blind, reads like a 1950s Jack Kirby crime comic. Matt’s childhood may be the sedentary one of a boy committed to his studies (his father wants him to “become a lawyer, or a doctor” – anything other than a prizefighter, like him), but the outside world we glimpse every so often is one populated by boy gangs, petty thugs, and organized crime – the same trappings that adorned so many of Kirby’s comics throughout the 1940s and ’50s.
How strange it is, then, that Kirby’s name appears not once in this collection; oddly, Daredevil was one of the few early Marvel characters he was never associated with. (A caveat: Mark Evanier has recently asserted that Kirby designed Daredevil’s original costume, but this remains unverified.) Instead, the artists here include Bill Everett, whose work had been appearing in Marvel publications since the company’s first comic book in 1939, and former EC artists Joe Orlando and Wally Wood – two comics veterans with styles uniquely their own. This is pretty remarkable for a Marvel comic published in 1964, since by this point the majority of the company’s output was drawn either by Kirby or, as in the cases of Sol Brodsky and the early Gil Kane, by a close imitator of Kirby’s style. (The major exception, of course, was Steve Ditko, but he rarely strayed from the pages of Dr. Strange and Amazing Spider-Man in these days.) The result is a comic that often looks as though it could have been published in the 1950s.
Art aside, the plots themselves often hearken to the conventions of the previous decade’s most popular genres. While other Marvel series of the mid- ’60s pitted their heroes against alien invaders, roguish demigods, and planet-devouring cosmic entities, Daredevil’s nemeses were run-of-the-mill thugs who, when struck by what little ingenuity they possessed, donned garish costumes to commit largely bloodless crimes. There is one notable exception in this volume: Daredevil #7, illustrated by Wood and often considered amongst the best of Lee’s writing. (It was even included in the anthology Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee, a book I reviewed some years ago.) This issue implements what would become the signature plot formula of Silver Age Marvel comics – the superhero crossover battle – but here the guest-star, Namor the Sub-Mariner, is such an outlandish inclusion, and the story ends in such definitive stalemate (Lee was adamant that no character should ever achieve complete victory over another in these battles), that it stands as one of the formula’s great exemplars.
While Daredevil’s earliest issues may feel a bit anachronistic when compared to the likes of mid-’60s Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man, the series is no less interesting for it. If anything, its reiteration of some of the previous decade’s most popular themes and iconography – the latter enhanced, no doubt, by the presence of ’50s mainstays like Everett, Wood, and Orlando – may actually complicate our understanding of comics’ Silver Age: for as much as the work of contemporary writers may evince nostalgia for this period, Daredevil is concrete proof that the 1960s were an age just as invested in the history of the medium.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Artists: David Marquez, Dale Eaglesham
Collects: Original Graphic Novel; Fantastic Four #570 (2009)
Published: Marvel, 2012; $24.99
As much as Marvel’s “Season One” graphic novel initiative may seem a shameless attempt to emulate the success of DC’s “Earth One” graphic novels, the first book in the series, Fantastic Four: Season One, also happens to be a surprisingly well put together comic. Designed with both new and older readers in mind, the book tells an updated version of the Fantastic Four’s origin story – probably the most thematically coherent one, in fact, since the Lee/Kirby original.
One of the main differences between “Earth One” and “Season One” is that the marketing for the latter has focused much more on the characters than on the creators involved. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is no stranger to Marvel’s original team of superheroes, though, having written a handful of issues of the main series and its short-lived Marvel Knights spin-off back in the mid-2000s. Here he does probably the best work he’s done with the characters since Marvel Knights’ earliest issues, wrapping some of the most established plot devices from Fantastic Four history – cosmic rays in outer space, giant monsters attacking New York City, the Thing temporarily reverting to human form (only to choose to become the Thing again, to save his teammates) – into a fairly cohesive narrative.
It helps that Aguirre-Sacasa hits just the right notes with several of the characters – the Human Torch and the Thing, in particular – to give the story a fittingly light-hearted tone. This sense is greatly enhanced by the art of David Marquez, who takes clear inspiration from the work of Kevin Maguire, especially in the realm of amusing facial expressions. The book is saturated with light blues and greens, provided by colorist Guru eFX, with most of the action taking place in broad daylight. It’s a nice diversion from the darker color palettes used in so many superhero comics these days.
But the book isn’t without problems. The reason given for the team’s doomed space flight is that Reed Richards wants to fly “the first privately-owned, privately-financed, privately-designed, privately-launched, utterly rogue rocket ship.” Although Reed insists that “proving himself” in this way is a means to an end – space tourism, he argues, will eventually subsidize the rest of his scientific work – such a hubristic display of power doesn’t really square with Aguirre-Sacasa’s otherwise unfailingly humanitarian portrayal of the character. Reed plays the role of absent-minded professor here; his ego doesn’t even approach the level at which it’s been portrayed over the last several years in other Marvel comics. Reed the businessman has been done, and done more convincingly, by Aguirre-Sacasa himself – especially at the beginning of the Marvel Knights series (in which the Fantastic Four go bankrupt).
The book shifts focus in a major way about halfway through. Having gained their powers and defeated the Mole Man in the first half, the team goes on to face Namor the Sub-Mariner in an updated version of the events of Fantastic Four #4. The book ends without completely resolving this subplot (Namor is captured and held prisoner in the team’s headquarters), leading me to wonder whether this was originally meant to be an ongoing series or miniseries, rather than a standalone graphic novel. Aguirre-Sacasa also introduces a new female character, Reed’s lab assistant Alyssa, who serves both as the manager of the team and as a secondary potential love interest for Reed. Her inclusion is to the author’s credit – his Susan Storm lacks much of a presence, and Alyssa provides a surprisingly multidimensional feminine voice. It’s a shame that her only appearance is in this book.
It’s unclear whether Fantastic Four: Season One is intended to be the characters’ “official” origin story from here on out, or if it’s just meant to be another version among the many others already out there. The fact that Marvel pads out the book’s length by reprinting the first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s run on the main (i.e., canonical) Fantastic Four series makes me lean toward the former, although it doesn’t really matter either way – Season One is a book that, in spite of its flaws, works as a standalone retelling of a familiar story.
Friday, January 3, 2014
Artists: Trevor McCarthy, Graham Nolan, and Dustin Nguyen
Collects: Batman: Gates of Gotham #1-5, Detective Comics Annual #12 (2011)
Published: DC, 2012; $14.99
Batman: Gates of Gotham, originally published by DC Comics as a five-issue miniseries in 2011, may be the most flagrant attack on creator rights that I have ever seen in a mainstream superhero comic. From beginning to end, its cast of characters enacts a corporate-fantasy version of the struggles over creative ownership that have rocked the comic book industry in recent years, with creators and their supporters effectively condemned, in the end, as mentally unstable individuals whose actions are tantamount to ideological terrorism.
Gates’ story is partially told through flashbacks to the 19th century narrated via the diary of Nicholas Gate, an architect who, along with his brother Bradley, designed and built much of Gotham City. The story of the Gate brothers bears striking resemblance to the well-known partnership of comic book writer-artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who together created Captain America), as well as to that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. Not only are the Gates, like those real-life writer-artists, the impoverished sons of immigrants, but their initial place of work, with its crowded artists hunched over drawing boards, visually recalls the Eisner-Iger comic book studio in which Simon and Kirby began their careers. Furthermore, just as Simon/Kirby and Siegel/Shuster saw their creations come to life through the financial backing of Timely Comics and National Comics, respectively, so the Gates aspire to work for the individual whose wealth will facilitate the achievement of their artistic vision: “we approached Mr. Wayne with several drawings – drawings for our Gotham. Which we proposed to make his Gotham,” Nicholas says.
Also like Simon/Kirby and Siegel/Shuster, Nicholas Gate eventually has a falling out with the men who have thus far commissioned his work. The difference is that, in Gate’s case, this falling out occurs not over an employer’s refusal to return original artwork or to give financial compensation where creative credit is due, but over the mysterious death of his brother, which Nicholas believes to have been murder. He accuses one of his wealthy patrons, Cameron Kane, of being behind Bradley’s death, and as a result he loses the financial support of his employers. Gate’s suspicions are never confirmed and thus are cast into permanent doubt – unlike in Kirby’s case, for example, in which Marvel's refusal to return original artwork was admitted openly by the company.
If Nicholas Gate at first seems to represent the archetypal “wronged creator,” though, then the second half of Gates of Gotham is a character assassination of that archetype. Following his brother’s death, Gate is portrayed first as hopelessly naive when he tries to convince Alan Wayne that foul play is involved, and later as a madman when he attempts to murder Cameron Kane in revenge; he ends up killing Kane’s son Robert instead. At the end of the story it is revealed that Nicholas was subsequently locked away at Arkham Asylum; for questioning the way he is treated by his employers and expressing his anger towards them, the book declares him insane.
There is metonymic significance, too, in the names of Gate’s antagonists. Although it may be tempting to dismiss the naming of one character after Batman “creator” Bob Kane as merely an in-joke, in view of the rest of the book’s position toward comic book creators it can hardly be overlooked. Nicholas’s murder of Gates’ Robert Kane is the act that “proves” the book’s argument: that creators who retaliate against their employers do so carelessly, vindictively, and without legitimate basis. That argument is made even more troubling by its invoking of the real-life Bob Kane – a man who continues to receive sole credit for Batman’s creation, despite the fact that the most familiar elements of the Batman mythos (apart from the name) were created by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. In Gates’ corporate-fantasy characterization of comic book creators, the murder of Robert Kane marks an “end of the innocence” not unlike that which took place after the death of the real-life Bob Kane: in the years since the truth of Batman’s creative origins became common knowledge, moral and legal questions about the way publishers treat creators have become significantly more complicated. It is not hard to imagine the leadership at a company like DC yearning for simpler times, but the way that sentiment is transcoded in Gates of Gotham, intentional or not, is appalling.
The same themes pervade Gates’ present, in which a terrorist calling himself the Architect is attacking bridges and skyscrapers built by the Gate brothers and owned by the prominent families that had supported their work. The Architect wears a steampunk-influenced diving suit, which Batman discovers had been worn by the Gate brothers and their employees during the underwater construction of their largest bridges. Based on this connection, it requires no great leap to understand the Architect’s actions as “revenge” for the wrongs perpetrated against Nicholas Gate over a century earlier. The Architect’s rhetoric is filled with hatred for Gotham and its wealthiest citizens, who he calls “liars and thieves,” and he accuses Batman of being a “traitor” even as he tries to blow up Gotham’s bridges with Semtex. If, as I have argued, Nicholas represents the archetypal “wronged creator” reimagined as an angry lunatic, then the Architect is the struggle for creator rights reimagined as literal terrorism.
The story’s only real mysteries are who the Architect is and whether Bradley Gate was actually murdered. While the latter question is never answered, the Architect is revealed to be a character named Dillon May. May is identified at first simply as a “collector” (what he “collects” is never explained), but in the final issue he is also exposed as a descendant of Nicholas Gate. With this move, Gates effectively conflates the two groups most prominently involved in the struggle for creator rights – longtime comic book readers (“collectors”) and the families/heirs of those creators – into an undifferentiated, self-deluded mass. The fact that Batman declares he will defeat the Architect “by proving everything he believes is a lie” underscores the book’s argument and positions its protagonist as an obvious stand-in for companies like DC and Marvel, which have made it their mission to refute even the smallest allegations of wrongdoing made by former employees and their heirs.
Gates does not stop there, but give Batman these lines at its conclusion: “There are reasons and there are excuses. If it wasn’t his family, he would have found something else to rage over.” There is merit, certainly, to the argument that the most dedicated of comic book fanboys will always be angry about something, but to equate the arbitrary whims of fanboys with the dedicated positions of those who advocate fair terms for writers and artists is insulting. If anything, supporters of creator rights are defined by qualities that directly oppose those of most fanboys: the questions they ask are not “would this or that superhero win in a fight,” but “have Marvel and DC adequately compensated their writers and artists for the fruits of their creations? If not, what is to be done about it?” Batman: Gates of Gotham is little more than an ad hominem attack on the people who would ask these questions, made with as much mean-spirited “rage” as the antagonist it so doggedly seeks to vilify.