Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Batman #50 Review: Superheaviest


Let's start with the new costume: less a refresh and more of a polish, right? There's not much to say about an outfit that looks more or less the same just with yellow trim, making Batman...less stealthy? I'm ambivalent towards it even knowing that this is one costume update that will very much stick around. On to the story itself. The tenth and final part of "Superheavy" is stuffed with narrative almost to it's own detriment. ALMOST. Scott Snyder deftly handles three plots that all intertwine, leading to the eventual takedown of Mr. Bloom: Bruce Wayne's return to the cowl, Jim Gordon's final act of heroism as the Dark Knight of Gotham, and Duke Thomas' confrontation with the real Mr. Bloom.

Where other issues may have collapsed under the pressure of so many interlocking narratives, Snyder has a talent for bringing together ideas in the end, only it's often not in the fashion readers expect. That said, "Superheavy" might be Snyder's least oddball ending since his run on Batman began -- though it's steeped in a sci-fi quagmire of cosmic jargon, the return of the original Batman and the final battle with Mr. Bloom play out rather predictably, though the specifics are rather interesting.

No one presumed that Jim Gordon would die at the end of Batman #50, so the constant reminders that Jim needs to get to a hospital before he keels over from his wounds get very old very quick. Sure -- that kind of build-up works in certain situations, but again; no one reading this issue thought Jim was going to actually die, so the whole practice becomes moot. This hollow tension makes Jim's monologue near the issue's end a bit stale and concocted. I know Jim was always waiting for Batman to return, but he didn't need to go all diva and recite the speech he'd obviously been practicing in the mirror for some time.

Batman -- the one and only -- is also a rather divisive narrative line in Batman #50. Last month saw Bruce Wayne stand up and accept who he is and what he means to Gotham City, yet none of that passion and/or drive seems present this month. As soon as Bruce jumps back into the thick of battle, Penny-One delivers some rather clunky exposition instead of Bruce's actions speaking for themselves. As much as I like Greg Capullo's artwork, and as fantastic as he's been for most of this series, Batman #50's fight sequences don't convey the same thrill they once did like in "The Court of Owls" or "Death of the Family". Perhaps it's my own bias coming into play having read every issue Capullo has pencilled for this run, but the whole "Batman is actually better than he was before!" angle works against the emotional nuance this issue could have had.

By transforming Bruce Wayne into a more perfect version of himself, Snyder has inadvertently ripped away part of what makes Batman Batman. Some people wear their scars like badges of honor, and while I don't believe Bruce Wayne sees them as such, he does appreciate that they represent something, and taking away the physical scars but not the mental ones simply means DC basically pulled a Marvel and de-aged Bruce Wayne. The difference, of course, being that Snyder is making it a narrative element, which only makes sense on a very basic level. Seriously -- what does this actually mean for Batman? He was already the most impressive human being on the planet (arguably), with a fascinating blend of a litany of martial arts talent, tactically-honed strategic subterfuge, and alarmingly adaptive mental dexterity. So, he's just more of these things now? That's it? I don't see the point other than Snyder fulfilling some dream to outdo Grant Morrison's colloquially-known "Bat God" by literally making Batman BETTER THAN EVER BEEEFFFFOOOOOORE!

All this said, Batman #50 is still a great issue that makes good use of the elements introduced since the finale of "Endgame". Jim Gordon's supporting cast -- Julia Pennyworth, Daryl, and Gerri Powers -- are all present and accounted for, while Duke Thomas plants himself even more firmly into Snyder's Batman mythos. Bloom himself is not really the point because, as Batman even points out, "anyone could be Bloom..." His or her identity isn't important. Very much like how, as we grow older, we come to recognize that much of what is actually said is of little consequence, and that how our words make others feel is what truly matters in the end. Bloom represents the paranoia and anger borne from tragedy and terror, the loss of hope that comes from watching your family, friends, and home burn again and again and again.

Jim Gordon did not solve the mystery of Mr. Bloom. We will never know if Bruce Wayne could have. But that's not the point. Snyder approached BatJim the same way he did Bruce Wayne; the Batman is for Gotham is for Batman, and so on. To Snyder, the two entities are mutually exclusive, and when Jim takes the mantle of Batman, the city doesn't respond well. Bloom is a metaphorical symptom for the militarization, privatization, and corporatization of the Batman ideals. As good a man as Jim Gordon is, even he cannot stop the gears of industry, finances, politics, and traditions from grinding through the wrench thrown into the machine.

SCORE: 8/10

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

What the F#&k, Civil War II? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I delved into Avengers Standoff, the currently-running Avengers crossover event that totally misses the point and turns Maria Hill into a demented monster. You can check it out here.

Marvel recently released two posters depicting which heroes stand on either side of the moral conundrum at the heart of this summer’s Civil War II by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez. It was a big moment for fans waiting to see which way their favorite heroes lean on the matter of using an Inhuman child with a high precognitive success rate to stop crimes before they happen. It’s a rip on Minority Report with no real qualms about being so, and the team rosters choices are really quite puzzling.

TEAM IRON MAN (Like, whoa dudes, let’s not f#&k over random peoples’ lives before they even do anything wrong; for serious, this is a terrible idea.

- Deadpool
- Black Widow
Totally Awesome Hulk
- Hercules
- Luke Cage
Miss America
- Thor
- Daredevil
- Black Panther
- Star-Lord
- Captain America, Sam Wilson

Before I look at Team Captain Marvel, let’s examine Team Iron Man, the roster that makes sense in context. Sam Wilson has been against Project Kobik and using the cosmic cubes for national defense since the first few issues of Captain America: Sam Wilson, so no surprise there. Luke Cage and Star-Lord both have less-than-stellar pasts, so the thought of being incarcerated for something they haven’t yet done is obviously a bit offensive; the same goes for Black Widow and Deadpool, really, as they both started as criminals and have taken steps to reconcile who they were with who they have become.

Miss America’s universe is a magical realm made possible by the Demiurge, an older version of Billy Kaplan (formerly of the Young Avengers, currently of the New), and her adventures with younger Billy made it obvious to her that fate, destiny, and the future are never set in stone; NEVER. The current Hulk, Amadeus Cho, is the eighth smartest person on the planet, and he’s sided with the third smartest (I think) person, Stark, as well as T’Challa; two other incredibly intelligent, super-genius intellects who understand how bad an idea precognitive crime prevention would be. Black Panther’s time with the Illuminati and their hand in the end of the multiverse has made his stance of playing god very, very clear.

Hercules has been around long enough to probably have seen this before and know it won’t end well. Thor is the ‘wild card’ here, as there doesn’t seem to be a discernable reason why she’d choose Iron Man’s team, but the idea that she needs a reason beyond having common f#&king sense about the situation is absurd.

Now onto Team Captain Marvel, the craziest hodge-podge of mischaracterizations I’ve ever seen banded together for a very silly and very unethical movement.

TEAM CAPTAIN MARVEL (Guys, how can we not use this Inhuman kid to predict and stop future crimes; what’s the worst that could happen from f#&king with reality like that???)

- Winter Soldier
- She-Hulk
- Spectrum
- Ant-Man
- Blue Marvel
- Medusa
- The Vision
- War Machine
- Hawkeye
- Spider-Man

Carol Danvers is a conservative military type, so it makes sense that she’d support a program that most effectively curtailed crime and harm to civilians. Same goes for James “Rhodey” Rhodes in the War Machine armor; he’s a soldier of the US military, Carol’s boyfriend, and holds similar views on security. As queen of an entire species, Medusa has more credence to want a way to protect Inhumans as they face prejudice and fear and danger from the world at-large, a system to make sure she could keep her subjects safe and alive. Beyond these three, though, the picks get incredibly ridiculous.

She-Hulk is an attorney; she obviously understands innocent until proven guilty, and that there needs to be a crime from which to charge someone. Ant-Man and Hawkeye were both incarcerated before they became heroes (like Luke Cage!) so it makes no sense that they’d support a system that punishes people preemptively. Spectrum and Blue Marvel are both on the Ultimates (now, it seems, at odds with their teammates Miss America and Black Panther) and both incredibly intelligent scientists who should know that even a 99.9% accuracy means a margin of error big enough to argue against the project, AND they should know better than to screw with time like this, even passively.

The Vision makes no sense on this team; he was a major proponent for civil rights of artificial intelligence when faced with fear, prejudice, and possible genocide of all non-organic sentience based on what could come of technology that might evolve to stand against humanity. Similarly, Winter Soldier’s reputation has followed him since he was freed of his dogmatic brainwashing and became a hero (even taking the mantle of Captain America for a while), and he takes an aggressive stance against S.H.I.E.L.D. during Avengers: Standoff for screwing with reality in the name of safety, actions that would absolutely have resulted in his incarceration had this Inhuman child predicted Bucky would be a threat to S.H.I.E.L.D.s operations. I’m not saying S.H.I.E.L.D. will be in control of the Inhuman precog, only that future crimes aren’t necessarily black or white, and Bucky should know this more than most as someone who was a hero, then a brainwashed villain, then a hero again, and eventually a super spy who had to make incredibly difficult ethical decisions to keep Earth spinning. Spider-Man is an outlying variable, as there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason why he’d throw his support behind Captain Marvel, except...

STEVE ROGERS. The real wild card of this team because HOW IN THE HOLY H%LL DOES STEVE ROGERS SUPPORT THIS AT ALL!?!?!? It’s ludicrous to believe that the man who once shed his title based on his principles, became a fugitive over the Superhero Registration Act, who harshly judged the Illuminati for preemptively destroying whole worlds to stave off the decaying multiverse, and who is currently pissed the h%ll off at Maria Hill for using Project Kobik to rewrite reality would in any way, shape, or form support Captain Marvel’s ludicrous plan to hope that this precog gets it right most of the time, to allow heroes to play god and decide who is right and wrong based on one person’s predilections.

I assume that's our Inhuman in the middle?
Which leads to the real question behind this entire crossover event: Who is this Inhuman?

Leaks from 4Chan some weeks back pin the character as an Inhuman child named Homer (who knows if that name will be in the final version of CWII) who possesses the ability to predict future events with 99.9% accuracy. With just this information, ‘Homer’ is simply a plot device and nothing more. But he/she/it can’t be just that; there needs to be more to the character. How does Homer feel about using his powers in such a way? Where does Homer come from and what influences his decisions to seek out the Avengers and/or agree to help when they find him? Will there be outside influences that attempt to shape the future using Homer’s ability to deceive heroes and villains alike? Which character from which side of the debate will eventually attempt to manipulate Homer into giving false readings to either A.) Tarnish Captain Marvel’s name, or B.) Prove Iron Man’s stance na├»ve? What if Homer has his own personal agenda that none of us know about yet?

As fun as it is to posture about the team rosters for Civil War II, they don’t really make a difference one way or another – the ethical implications behind each side of the debate are the most important factor of his story. I’m a Carol Danvers for nearly ten years now and I understand that she’s more conservative and militant than most characters in the Marvel universe, so it doesn’t upset me that Carol wants to ‘Change the Future’ now, or that she supported the Superhero Registration Act during the original Civil War, or even when she hunted down her friends for committing multiversal genocide in “Time Runs Out” – in fact, I actually love Carol even more now because CWII shows how her views haven’t changed, that her characterization has stayed consistent over the years. All that said, my personal politics concerning the issue of preemptive crime prevention has me already rooting for Team Iron Man, the team with actual sense and responsible ethics at the core.

Of course, none of what I’ve written means much; there’s still too little information concerning Civil War II to make accurate or informed decisions on how the story will go. The lack of info about the Inhuman kid, the reasons each character choose their respective sides, and how this conflict will affect the world population, S.H.I.E.L.D., and other heroes is yet to be known. And that’s a real problem, because right now, it feels like Civil War II is about a select group of characters unilaterally deciding what to do with a great and terrible power they may or may not be able to control. Sound familiar? It was the premise for House of M, Age of Ultron (the comic, not the film), Avengers vs. X-Men, and basically Jonathan Hickman’s entire New Avengers run. In fact, a major aspect of Hickman’s Avengers was commentary on the nature of the Illuminati, a group of ultra-intelligent heroes working toward a clandestine future without accountability or oversight, and how they fell from grace and undermined all their principles in the process.

Have we learned nothing? Do the heroes of the Marvel universe not remember these events? I know Secret Wars rewrote a lot of history and the new ‘Prime Earth’ isn’t exactly set in stone, but to offer readers yet another narrative based in personal opinions extrapolated into territory dangerously close to worldwide oligarchy is simply ridiculous. There’s so much precedent for not f#&king around with forces we don’t understand – Brian Michael Bendis’ own X-Men saga was one long, arduous, bloated ode to the dangers of messing with time and space and the future and the past. So why does Civil War II yet again try to make readers think this is something new or noteworthy.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll read Civil War II and probably all of the tie-ins because I’m a sadistic completionist with crossovers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be critical about a rehash of a rehash of a archetypal narrative trope.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What the F#&k, Avengers Standoff? (Part 1)


Avengers: Standoff is a pointless, silly, ridiculous charade of an event that defeats its own purpose from the very beginning. On top of a rushed and seemingly slipshod narrative flow, Standoff uses the cosmic cubes (more-or-less new to the comic book universe) in about the least interesting way possible: to subdue villains. With shards of the cube, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Maria Hill has created a system to overwrite physical reality and reshape supervillains into upstanding members of her new Connecticut community, Pleasant Hill. Garish pun aside, Pleasant Hill is obviously an analogy for mistrust in the government and superheroes, a symbol of federal overreach and horrifying levels of invasion of privacy.

This image makes NO sense.
The wasted potential of Avengers: Standoff is upsetting. The cosmic cubes have the power to rewrite reality, to literally change something into something else – it’s cosmic alchemy, one step below godhead – and Marvel decides to have a spy agency use them to existentially jail villains in a quaint Connecticut hamlet. The worst part is that reality-warping powers have been used in major Marvel stories before, and to better degrees. House of M saw a psychologically broken Scarlet Witch murder former teammates, rewrite reality into one where mutants were the dominant species and Magneto ruled the world, then decree “No more mutants” and erase the x-gene from hundreds of thousands of individuals. In Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Wars, Doctor Doom uses the Molecule Man to become a literal god at the end of all realities and fuse the fading remnants of the dying multiverse together to create Battleworld, a patchwork existence Doom controls absolutely. These are just two examples; two recent examples (one in 2015) from a bevy of similar stories over decades of comics.

Yet here, in 2016, cosmic cubes are reduced to unsubtle political allegories. It’s a failure of imagination, and whatever ethical core Avengers: Standoff might have is completely overshadowed by the cumbersome approach to Maria Hill’s atrocious characterization. The comic book version of Maria Hill is an authoritative hard-@$$, an obsessed perfectionist, and a stubborn militant; she embodies what the director of the world’s foremost security, intelligence, and espionage agency (that, ironically, is incredibly transparent to the public) should be: the personification of tactics and strategy. Hill took over S.H.I.E.L.D. after Nick Fury (and Daisy Johnson, a.k.a. Quake for a short stint, true believers!), and her entire stay as director is marked by unrest and subversion. From superhero civil war, to the secret invasion of shapeshifting Skrulls implanted for years as heroes and agents, to the de-commissioning of S.H.I.E.L.D. during the dark reign of Norman Osborn and H.A.M.M.E.R. (an evil S.H.I.E.L.D. whose acronym is still meaningless), to the re-commissioning of S.H.I.E.L.D. and then on to more superheroes-at-war shenanigans and a full-on alien invasion/end of the universe. Needless to say, Hill’s tenure has been absolutely unbelievable and completely terrifying.

Hill has worked with the Avengers on and off again more times than I can count, and though her reputation with the superhuman community isn’t the best – S.H.I.E.L.D. relations with mutants became far worse over the course of Hill’s career, but that’s more to do with Brian Michael Bendis’ X-Men saga needing a ‘big bad’ that eventually helps the mutants when the going gets rough – she’s retained a relatively peaceful coexistence/working relationship between this spy organization and the Avengers as well as other random heroes around the world. She’s worked with other spy agencies, like China’s S.P.E.A.R., and S.W.O.R.D.; the ‘S.H.I.E.L.D. in Space’ for lack of caring to think of a better term. The point is that Hill has a long history of working well with others and finding solutions to impossible problems. Maria Hill is an incredibly strong character that
has grown and evolved over the years. Playing her against the Avengers for the sake of surreally lobotomizing supervillains undermines that growth, and turns Hill from a hard-lined, cranky-yet-lovable, “mean ol’ boss” type into a complete monster who sincerely believes the ends justify these means. That’s not Maria Hill. There’s no way she would give up and stoop this low.

The more believable and digestible version of this story would have been one where Hill is replaced as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Whoever this new Director might be is inconsequential; his or her purpose is to reject the olive branch Hill extended so frequently in favor of the metaphorical stick in the form of the cosmic cubes. Even if the cubes were still only used to make Project Kobik’s Pleasant Hill scenario play out, it would work much better under a less superhero-friendly S.H.I.E.L.D. director. This scenario also puts Hill in a renegade position that collates with her character history, one in which she is confident in her authority and knows Project Kobik would be the political, ethical, and moral destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.

My own delusions of narrative grandeur aside, Maria Hill deserves better than this. Writer Nick Spencer is quick to root Hill the role of demented, power-hungry fascist that spews propaganda about ‘real’ security and ‘true’ peace, which makes her a scapegoat for the entire story. The criminals aren’t the enemy, nor the Avengers, or even the hundreds of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who’re told they’re making the world a better place. Spencer has placed all the blame firmly on Hill’s shoulders and that’s not only unfair, it’s a bit obtuse.

Even in the Marvel comic book universe, a world where green monsters and mythological gods are commonplace, government agencies, including S.H.I.E.L.D, have oversight. The way Spencer has presented Hill’s influence basically makes her almighty god of international security, and that’s simply preposterous; no one has that much power over an entity so big…NO ONE. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a multinational, borderless agency that deals with worldwide crises on a daily basis and I’m supposed to believe that a single person, even the director, is able to bypass any accountability and proceed with a program that is not only overwhelmingly ethically dubious, but also incredibly unpopular with the public after being leaked by hackers and denounced by the one of the most well-known heroes in the world? Balderdash.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Seven Comics You Probably Aren't Reading But Should

What? You are reading these comics? Then you don't need to be here -- thanks A LOT! for just scrolling down and ignoring all those pesky words in between the picks! Anyway, below are some pretty amazing suggestions for comics you could read that you might not think would be good and/or something you might be into. 

Starbrand and Nightmask (Marvel Comics)
I won’t go on and on about how I pretty much had this same idea for a comic book series years ago (I did, I promise, and it was so good), but I will say that Greg Weisman and Domo Stanton’s Starbrand and Nightmask is more or less what I had envisioned: two friends attending college and also being superheroes. The specifics of Adam and Kevin’s journey to enrollment might be different than what I had in mind (the next generation after heroes were outlawed in the 60s), but the emotional core is what makes the series so enjoyable. Yes, there are space baddies and cool fight scenes, but the awkwardness of real life often makes the cosmic stuff seem easy.

Hercules (Marvel Comics)
Dan Abnett and Luke Ross take a more-or-less defunct character, admit his recent flaws, and do a damn good job rebuilding him from a drunken ass into the hero he’s supposed to be. The current (and maybe only) storyline concerns the rise of new gods based on modern societal vices like social media technology and extreme narcissism. Herc must rise to the occasion against this new pantheon intent on culling all the old gods from existence. The plot is interesting, but it’s truly Abnett’s character work that sells this title.

The Spire (BOOM! Studios)

If you’re a fan of BOOM! Studios, Simon Spurrier, or Jeff Stokely, you probably already know how incredible The Spire has been, otherwise it might not be on your radar. As beautifully as Spurrier has spun this mysterious mythos around an enigmatic plot, Stokely’s intuitive artwork is simply magnificent, a fitting blend of comic nuances and minimalist techniques that highlight emotion and give the entire series a storybook feel without coming across as childish or unfinished. The Spire is only an eight issue mini-series, so catch up now then pick up the final two issues as they come out because they are going to be amazing.

Black Canary (DC Comics)
This is the black sheep (no pun intended) of even the most experimental of DC’s titles to come of last June’s DC You initiative, one that focused primarily on spreading outside the traditional superhero comic tropes a la Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr’s successful refresh of Batgirl. Even by Batgirl metrics, Fletcher and artist Annie Wu’s Black Canary seems like a stretch; Dinah Drake (nee Lance nee Drake) is the lead singer for a rock band called Black Canary, and when Dinah’s past catches up with her, it spells disaster and supernatural shenanigans for her bandmates and any innocent civilians who might happen to be attending a concert by a super-popular rock band. And to be fair, it was a very silly premise for a number of issues, but more recent events have elevated the once-flimsy story into something more substantial and interesting. Fletcher is playing a long game with short bursts of energy, so the pacing feels erratic when it’s actually quite purposeful. Definitely a sleeper hit.

Saints (Image Comics)
I don’t even remember there being much marketing for this series before it debuted, and I certainly haven’t seen much press for it since, and that’s a damn shame. Sean Lewis and Benjamin Mackey are unraveling a crazy fun narrative about saints suddenly reincarnated to fight in some upcoming war. The premise isn’t terribly innovative or fresh, but Mackey’s stylized artwork with Lewis’ humorously colloquial dialogue make for a fantastic tale about misfits that must band together even if they might hate one another.

Past the Last Mountain (Comics Experience)
After a war between men and magic, mythical beasts are subjugated in a number of ways, but mostly they’re confined to work camps to help make human lives easier. The series follows a motherly dragon, a warrior fawn, and an orphaned young goblin on the run from their human captors. Connected by an oath to the goblin’s murdered mother, the dragon and fawn pledge to keep their friend’s son safe and out of human hands. Writer and letterer Paul Allor brings a sense of emotional intuition with his narrative, one that helps the reader see the tragedy of the magical creatures but also the difficult position in which human find themselves. Louie Joyce and Gannon Beck provide incredible visuals that feels like a mosaic of styles, with each character given distinct features and detailing that others don’t and vice versa. The young goblin’s aesthetic is minimal, the fawn’s physical prowess makes her body the main focus, and the dragon’s emotions are directly connected to her bevy of facial expressions. It all works together fantastically.

Pencil Head (Image Comics)
Ted McKeever is bold. With this series, he is exposing the underbelly of the corporate comic book machine without outright calling out big publishers like DC and Marvel. The character depictions of sleezy corporate big-wigs is commentary enough on how McKeever perceives the powers-that-be. Pencil Head is paced crazy, but is incredibly easy to read, somehow. More than any other series on this list, I find it difficult to explain what makes Pencil Head so engaging – it’s part James Robinson’s Airboy, part Grant Morrison’s Animal Man #26, and part Christopher Burns’ Black Hole. If that’s not enough to confuse you to all hell, just go read the two available issues and see what I mean.