Stewart the Rat (November 1980)

Stewart the ratStewart the Rat is a depressing book to think about. Writer Steve Gerber had just been fired by Marvel from his masterpiece Howard the Duck, and his career was in a time of transition. Fans of the duck could look to this book as a supplemental substitution, though they would have had to know about it specifically to place a special order with their direct market comics shop – neither this nor anything else by independent publisher Eclipse Enterprises would be showing up on the newsstand next to the latest Rom the Space Knight or Master of Kung Fu. Non-fans of the duck were still forewarned by the front cover, in horror film red-on-black Courier font, that this was “By the creator of HOWARD THE DUCK.” Even if you’d never heard of Howard, you’d know this book was something off-brand. Something that should not be. An aberration from a proven success, born either out of necessity or sheer desperation.

Eclipse Enterprises was, at least according to Wikipedia, the first publisher of graphic novels although that term hadn’t yet been coined. Stewart the Rat is only 44 pages but with its magazine-sized European “comic album” dimensions and stiffer, heavier paper stock it feels a little more important, but still takes no longer to read than an issue-and-a-half of classic Howard. The higher quality paper is actually a nuisance. The pages don’t turn as easily as a normal comic and feel as though they could be bent irreparably if you held them too carelessly. The spine cracks like gingerbread every time you open it. The prestige format makes you feel burdened if all you want is some more Howard the Duck adventures by your pals Steve Gerber and Gene Colan.

Gene Colan’s art, with assistance by Tom Palmer, is typically masterful but suffers from being in black and white compared to the lush coloring his work was receiving at Marvel, except for the de-evolution of Howard into a black and white magazine after Gerber’s firing – but that magazine’s art had better rendering as well as more pages per issue than Stewart.

The most exciting experimentation Gerber uses with the larger, more ostentatious format is getting textual as well as meta-textual, by opening with a lengthy prologue explaining Stewart’s origin story from the perspective of Stewart himself. This part is so well written it actually overshadows the rest of the experience, leaving you wondering what a full length novel by could have been. Echoing the mutation of Gerber’s funny animal id from duck to rat, Stewart begins his existence as Stewart Dropp, a human being (and dead ringer for the author) who unexpectedly dies a grim death (the text is his murder-suicide note) and leaves behind a giant rat who can walk and talk thanks to an infusion of the human Stewart’s own genetic material. In a strange way this prefigures Alan Moore’s reinvention of Swamp Thing as a pure swamp-creature born of human influence, rather than of human origin. Disappointingly, the details of Stewart the Rat’s creation never come back to play any role in the overall story, its just Gerber flexing other creative muscles to set the narrative in motion. Stewart may as well have stayed Of Unknown Origin.

The titular rat’s adventure is, unsurprisingly, a Howard the Duck type of adventure. He winds up in Los Angeles, rather than Howard’s usual Marvel Comics haunt of New York, where he meets a Beverly Switzler surrogate, Sonja Lake, being menaced by a Doctor Bong surrogate named Wayne Fossick. Gerber himself had gone Hollywood irl, working on Thundarr the Barbarian for television, and makes many informed jibes at Los Angeleno culture. The villain Fossick is the best part of the book, possibly the best villain Gerber ever wrote – the ultimate purveyor of New Age claptrap, L. Ron Hubbard by way of Charles Manson. His made up self-help jargon and speeches are both hilarious in their parodies of Werner Erhard platitudes, and dizzying in their hip, banal nihilism. It could have been a great arc for a couple issues of the duck; Beverly goes to LA and Howard has to save her from this megalomaniac. Instead we have these surrogates who barely have enough pages to be characterized before the action starts. In emulating but not distinguishing this creation from his similar, previous comic hero, Stewart can’t help but constantly remind the reader of Howard, especially with the Colan art. There are swears, and tiddies, but Howard the Duck never needed either to be great and Stewart doesn’t gain anything from them either.

Gerber would embrace the absence of Howard and comment on it directly a couple years after Stewart with Destroyer Duck, before sneaking Howard into his run on Sensational She-Hulk some years later and eventually getting to make the denouement on his creation with a Howard the Duck MAX mini-series in 2002 – where he was, incidentally, transformed into a mouse as a commentary on Disney’s lawsuit against Marvel claiming that Howard’s design copied Donald. Ironically, this scandal preceded Stewart. It’s not polite to speak for the dead but I’d like to think if Gerber ever saw what Chip Zdarsky has done with the character recently, he’d kick his smug hipster teeth in.

Stewart the Rat is easily recommendable to any dedicated Steve Gerber fan, but Howard fans may find the experience slightly melancholy. The world conjured up for this relatively slim volume is a hollow one, existing only under because of the author’s frustration over not being able to tell the story using his preferred cast of characters. Stewart was ignominiously born, briefly lived, and quickly abandoned by his creator, who always preferred the company of waterfowl to rodents.

CREDITS

Stewart the Rat; writer, Steve Gerber; artists, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer; letterer, Tom Orzechowski; publisher, Eclipse Enterprises.

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Garfield: His 9 Lives (October 1984)

61pyepb4rxl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Garfield, the comic strip, has a bad rap that’s mostly unwarranted. As a popular art form, newspaper comic strips have been in a qualitative free-fall since television began replacing newspapers as people’s primary source of information and entertainment, with a few bright spots like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Bloom County proving exceptions to the rule. Garfield earned a lot of rightful contempt for being among the first that was ubiquitously, inescapably merchandised; the suction-cup car window doll becoming an 80s staple along with mass marketed junk available at every mall in America. Long after Garfield the franchise hit its lucrative peak, the strip continued to hold the same low reputation as the dregs of the newspaper comics pages: the same dozen or so gags, repeated with only minor variation. There’s not a lot to be said in defense of this, as hating Mondays, eating Lasagna, and being slobbered upon by Odie are all staples of the brand to this day.

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Despite the endless landfills worth of claptrap, there are still a few points to be made in defense of America’s Favorite Flabby Tabby with ‘Tude to Spare™. While comic strips were going the way of Ziggy or Family Circus in terms of being anemically drawn, saccharinely cute “family” strips, Garfield showed commitment over time to increasingly cartoonish art and cynical humor that, while not terribly sophisticated was often dry and absurd. Sure, total garbage like The Lockhorns is technically “dry” as well but who the hell is The Lockhorns even aimed at, besides elderly people too tired to turn the page? Garfield never aspired to be much more than a comic strip for kids, and as kiddie comic strips went it was a little smarter and better drawn than most.

The cynicism could also be genuinely cutting and mean; in one strip Garfield’s girlfriend Arlene claims the gap in her teeth is a sign of sensitivity, he replies that he’d be “sensitive about it, too.” That’s like The Larry Sanders Show for eight year olds. The development of Jon Arbuckle as an über-dweeb patsy reached such depths of hilariously pathetic behavior that decades later the website Garfield Without Garfield became a sensation by photoshopping Garfield out of the picture to make Jon the star. Hipsters smugly concluded that the editing turned an otherwise unfunny strip into something worthwhile, but comedy superstar Jon Arbuckle was always there – the culture jammers just pushed the spotlight a few inches over to him.

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Another bit from the strip that sticks in my memory from when I was a kid was a weeklong series of gags in which Garfield is pelted by pies, thrown by unknown assailants from every possible direction and place. Jim Davis and his staff aren’t the most talented or imaginative cartoonists in the world, but they always seemed to enjoy the possibilities inherent in the medium. Jim Davis eventually signed off on an official Garfield Without Garfield collection, which shows he appreciated the joke or was at least savvy enough to capitalize on the subversion. On the more somber end of the strip’s capacity for darkness was another weeklong story near Halloween of 1989 placed Garfield in a jokeless Twilight Zone style nightmare. This series of strips was rediscovered years later and memed around online, but few kids who read them at the time ever forgot them. I specifically remember a sweaty extreme closeup on Garfield’s dilated eye, and the rare use of an omniscient narrator’s caption for the ominous line: YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW ALONE YOU ARE, GARFIELD.

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What these blips on the otherwise even history of workmanlike professional comic strip production that is Garfield betray is that like Walt Disney, Jim Davis is first and foremost a mainstream entrepreneur of cartoon banality, but also a mainstream cartoon entrepreneur with repressed artistic ambitions.

The apotheosis of these repressed artistic ambitions came early in the history of Garfield, with the 1984 book Garfield: His 9 Lives.

The most amazing thing about this book is that it exists. It’s like Walt cashing his chips at the height of Mickey Mouse’s popularity to make Fantasia, but more adventurous because while Disney was interested in allowing his animators to essentially depict Satan for the Night On Bald Mountain segment, they weren’t about to let anyone play around with reinterpretations of Mickey Mouse. In comic book terms, this is Jim Davis and his staff guesting an all-Garfield issue of 2000 A.D. or Heavy Metal, with a collection of stories based on 9 iterations (plus an introductory story) of Garfield along a loose historical timeline. A third of the stories are pretty typical Garfield fare, the other third are unrecognizable as Garfield and the remaining third were seemingly created to frighten small children. They printed it in oversized magazine graphic album size, on glossy paper and in full color. There’s no warning on the cover about how some of the contents might not be suitable for the kiddies, and one imagines the suits at Ballantine Books struggling to understand why Jim Davis wanted to risk controversy by pushing a project where the Garfield version of The Secret of N.I.M.H. wasn’t even the collection’s most traumatizing story.

The book is very much a product of the early 80s – just before the superheroes got serious, but when animation and comic books were nonetheless producing more exciting work in the wane of Disney’s dominance and ascendency of underground comics – comics like 2000 A.D., Heavy Metal, Cerebus the Aardvark and Elfquest, and animated films like Watership Down, The Last Unicorn, Rock & Rule, Twice Upon a Time or the late-period studio films of Ralph Bakshi. I think Jim Davis, or the people working closely with him, took a look at what was happening and seized the moment to do something alternative with the mainstream character they owned. Like most of the aforementioned comics and films, Garfield: His 9 Lives isn’t for very young children but isn’t quite for adults either: it is precisely for kids who are just getting to be old enough that they’re just a little too old for Garfield and are perhaps ready for graduation to, say, Mad Magazine, where adolescent mischief and dark irony awaited.

Garfield himself appears before each chapter to quip about the forthcoming story like your standard anthology host, but the straightforward preface by Jim Davis himself is the only statement of intent about this book’s genesis, then or now – one has to assume it wasn’t commercially successful (how could it be?) since there’s never been so much as a second printing:

Garfield was created to entertain. Given that and our feeling that there’s a lot more to Garfield than a seven inch newspaper format will allow, the artists at Paws, Incorporated, and I put the furry fellow on the rack and stretched him to the limits of our imaginations.

It occurred to us there were elements of Garfield’s complex personality that may well have been established in his previous lives…a cat’s proverbial “nine lives.” It was an exciting premise, one which consumed the staff and brought out the best in everyone. Many all-nighters and hundreds of hours of conceptual discussion went into this book.

This is a different book. It is dedicated to the Garfield philosophy of pure entertainment. I am also dedicating this book to the staff whose talents and courage made this bold statement possible: Neil Altrekruse, Gary Barker, Kevin Campbell, Jim Clements, Doc Davis, Larry Fentz, Mike Fentz, Valette Hildebrand, Dave Kühn and Ron Tuthill.

The cover reads “By: Jim Davis” but aside from his writing contributions, this was mainly the result of all those artists listed in the preface, who also get credited at the start of each story so you know exactly who did what. The opening story “In the Beginning” is a riff on the Paws, Incorporated staff themselves, using Fumetti traced over with caricature and fluorescent 80s airbrush colors. The hazy scene conflates the creation and design of Garfield with the creation and design of cats themselves, according to the boss’ grand idea. Yes, Jim Davis is your God.

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The first “Lives” story is a caveman tale starring Garfield as a cave cat. Despite Davis’ pronouncements in the preface about how Garfield’s possibilities shouldn’t just be limited to the seven inch newspaper format, Cave Cat follows the same rhythms as a Sunday Garfield strip for seven pages to unsurprising comedic results, with some noticeably handmade but unimaginative use of color. The most interesting aspect of the chapter is how brothers Mike and Larry Fentz are credited (with Davis) on art duties. It’s immediately apparent that they’re among the staffers who took Davis’ itchy,  B. Kliban style designs from the strip’s early days and finessed a more appealing “house style” for the mass market. The chapter feels rushed – if you look closely you can see many stray pencil lines.

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The second chapter, The Vikings, is a real tour-de-force for Mike Fentz. The story by him and Davis is about Garfield as a viking pet being unfrozen from an iceberg along with his human viking clan in St. Paul, Minnesota circa 1984. Fentz and Davis push themselves to write for a more comic-book and less comic-strip kind of script, and Fentz has a lot of fun setting the vikings on the loose in the 80s, with solid figure construction, funny character designs, expressive poses and use of color. The era of Frank Frazetta worship amongst illustrators shows its influence with the character of Helga the valkyrie, and her skimpy attire is the first inkling that not everything within the book may meet with your mom’s approval when she thumbs through it at Waldenbooks.

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The third chapter hits the first peak of experimentalism with Garfield the pop culture and comic strip icon: a text story (with illustrations) detective noir parody, Sam Spade with cats (“Sam Spayed” here, natch.) The script by Rob Tuthill is funny but not really Garfield-centric; there’s no references to lasagna or Mondays or any of those tropes and since the illustrations are black and white, you don’t get the visual cue of an orange cat, either. He’s not even named Garfield. This is truly off-brand material. Artist Kevin Campbell’s photorealistic humanoid cats in 1950s Los Angeles are startling and uncanny. It’s very neat.

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As if to reassure the younger readers who skipped past all that daunting text, chapter four is another pleasantly silly Davis/Fentz Brothers riff. The Exterminators, an homage to The Three Stooges with a nearly unrecognizable Garfield as Moe and two unnamed cats as Larry and Curly. The pacing and drawings are wackier than Cave Cat and the piece’s only real flaw is that it’s just a little too short on gags – it has a funny beginning and ending but no middle.

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Now, the next three chapters are where things get weeeeeird.

Lab Animal, with a story by Davis and art by Gary Barker and Mike Fentz (showing he can do more than just the funny animal style) is more or less Jim Davis’ The Plague Dogs. An orange cat escapes from a science lab and nearly dies, but carries a secret that allows it to escape. Realistic rendering, dramatic use of color to create atmosphere and, notably, the first chapter in the story wherein Garfield (or his analogue) has no dialogue or narration. A short but moody thriller, well done.

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Taking a sharp left turn with the next chapter, The Garden is a pure auteur piece – one of only two chapters with both story and art credited to one author, in this case Dave Kühn, and it’s Garfield going full Lisa Frank. There’s not much to say except that it’s pure 80s candy colored sludge, professionally executed but aesthetically indefensible, even from a nostalgic point of view. A girl frolics in a trippy magic garden with another unnamed version of Garfield, who is totally superfluous to the non-story written in calligraphy above their heads. Of interest only to scholars of the decade’s more dubious trends in graphic design.

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Chapter Seven is the piece de resistance, the one that everyone remembers above all others, the one most frequently excerpted for clickbait like “Top Ten Totally Insanely Dark Moments From Your Childhood That Actually Happened But You Won’t Believe Actually Happened Please Click This Article Or My Children Will Starve!” Even Garfield himself warns you in the prologue that this is going to be the scary one. Barker and Fentz return on art duties from Lab Animal along with Jim Clements, and the art looks much the same but with sketchier inks and more abstract backgrounds to heighten the horror. Also as with that prior story, the stand-in for Garfield is a silent, realistic cat and the narrative is almost purely visual. It’s a great little seven page horror story that would fit in any decent horror comic collection and is all the more arresting for being slipped into a Garfield book. Jim Davis must be a secret horror fan – between this, the 1989 Halloween psychodrama and the well-produced 1985 animated special Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, which The Onion AV Club interviewed Davis about here. And, indeed, His 9 Lives was an October release.

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The penultimate chapter resets the Garfield universe back to status quo with what in today’s parlance is called a soft reboot: an official canon origin story about Garfield being born in an Italian restaurant, adopted by Jon Arbuckle and introduced to Odie. The page layouts and color design resemble the Sunday newspaper strips, and the art by Gary Barker and Valette Hildebrand is on-model to the strip as well, so you’re left wondering what the point was of an unremarkable Garfield story with a longer page count – besides, presumably, satisfying the publisher that there’s at least one normal Garfield story amongst all the weirdness.

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Crisis On Infinite Garfields concludes with the other auteur turn, a chapter written and illustrated by Jim Clements called Space Cat. Where The Garden was at least stylistically idiosyncratic, Clements doesn’t stray far from the standard Garfield art or comedy, simply putting Garfield on a spaceship for some anti-gravity and artificial intelligence jokes that probably weren’t as stale in 1984. The backgrounds are especially fun, with lots of detail in the spaceship interiors and space vistas. The only unconventional features are how dense some of the dialogue balloons are and how Garfield is sometimes shown speaking with his mouth open.

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Garfield: His 9 Lives may not have been a smash hit, but there’s some quality work on display and a legacy of sorts: beyond the infamous Primal Self being rediscovered by the Internet, there was also a 1988 animated version of the book which, with a few segments switched out for new ones, attempted an anthology with different animation styles akin to Heavy Metal the movie. Garfield the pop culture icon didn’t try anything radical in the subsequent 30 years – the abysmal film versions with Bill Murray were certainly retrograde. However in 2014 Boom! Studios used their monthly Garfield comic book series as the platform for a four-part remake of Garfield: His 9 Lives, hiring a diverse group of cartoonists to get creative, including Brittney Williams, David DeGrand, Roger Langridge, and a 2000 A.D. artist (Frazer Irving) remaking Lab Cat – which definitely brings the project to a conceptual full circle.

If you’re old enough to appreciate Garfield: His 9 Lives, you’re too old for Garfield the comic strip. But if you grew up enjoying Garfield as a kid and want one Garfield book to keep on your shelf to reminisce with – one that’s not in that inconvenient rectangular format – this is the one.

CREDITS

Writers, Jim Davis, Mike Fentz, Ron Tuthill, Dave Kühn, Jim Clements; artists, Jim Davis, Mike Fentz, Larry Fentz, Kevin Campbell, Gary Barker, Dave Kühn, Jim Clements, Valette Hildebrand, Doc Davis; publisher, Ballantine Books.

Superman: American Alien (October 2016)

superamericanalienThe tagline on the back of this book is, “This is not a Superman comic.” Yes, but not because it’s a Clark Kent comic. No, it’s a Max Landis comic. Max Landis thinks he’s Clark Kent and this comic is an alternately banal and nauseating expression of his ego. Maybe it was inevitable he’d write a Superman graphic novel eventually, since his biggest fame has not come from his produced screenplays (including the found-footage superhero movie Chronicle) but from his viral YouTube videos about The Death of Superman and Clark Kent himself, which led to appearances on popular movie geek channels like Red Letter Media and Movie Fights, where he’s amusingly trashed Zack Snyder et all. A lot of people find his personality annoying but he’s at least earnestly articulate in his geek enthusiasms – especially for Superman, since Superman has been considered the uncool runner-up to Batman for about 30 years and needs the boost. But Max Landis’ version of Clark Kent is his own fantasy of being less self-aware, of wanting to be genuinely humble about possessing extraordinary talents, or at least privileges, that are his birthright – while maintaining the veneer of a happy-go-lucky geek.

Liking Superman better than Batman is arguably the Hipster’s preference. Landis actually wrote a Superman comic in 2014, a one issue imaginary first confrontation between Superman and The Joker where the punchline is that Joker can’t torment a superhero with a sense of humor and actual superpowers. Essentially, using the most popular Batman villain to argue that Superman is in another league. That and his YouTube videos have never given the impression he was affecting an ironic love of Superman. American Alien, collecting a limited series of seven issues with different artists for each story and backup one-page fill-ins, confirms Max Landis’ sincere appreciation for Superman – or at least just Clark Kent, in an unexpectedly disturbing reflection of the author’s own self-love. It’s not the kind of thing you’d notice if you weren’t familiar with Max Landis the Geek-Hollywood icon (that ignominious realm where people like Joss Whedon and Chris Hardwick dwell) but if people weren’t already familiar with Max Landis this book wouldn’t be on the New York Times bestseller list.

The first story, Dove, is about a very young Clark learning to fly. He also goes to see E.T. at the drive-in with Lana Lang, as Landis doesn’t know what life in Kansas is like but knows people go to movies. A John Deere trucker hat sees Clark riding on a pickup in cornrows and remarks, “Damn hippies.” What’s the matter with Kansas? “Maybe weird is better” says Jonathan Kent, reassuring his son who punched a mirror in fit of alien self-hate. Someday he’ll be in the big city where weird is normal and the exceptionally weird can flourish. Artist Nick Dragotta’s figures and backgrounds are fine enough but his manga-influenced facial expressions melt all over the character’s heads and their mouths are frequently just monochromatic ovals. Matthew Clark designs and illustrates a more compelling two page spread to ending the issue, with the Kent’s bulletin board collection of personal letters and photos telling the backstory of a prior miscarriage by Martha, their young professional lives as a veterinarian and lawyer, and most tellingly to Max’s unselfconscious elitism, a letter from Martha assuring John that the inheritance of his father’s farm does not mean he’s “‘trapped’ back in Smallville.”

The second story, Hawk, is Clark Kent’s first incident stopping some bad guys. They’re completely loco bad guys out of an exploitation movie, too, whose motivation is purely to kill innocent people. Clark stops them because darn it, that’s just the right thing to do. Passable teen banter between Clark and Pete Ross at the beginning, before the crushingly predictable proceedings. Tommy Lee Edwards does a good job with the art and color which has a gritty true crime feel. The inconsequential, one page Doomsday cameo at the end with art by Evan “Doc” Shaner feels like a reminder that Max’s Death and Return of Superman video is the only reason you’re wasting time reading yet another variation on the most cliched pivotal moment of every superhero’s origin story. Even Batman tried fighting crime without a costume first.

Parrot, the third story, finally finds Clark in an environment Landis knows how to write authentically: a party for stupid, fake rich people. The setup is still extremely contrived: Clark happens to win a Bahamas vacation trip where the plane just happens to crash next to a boat which just happens to be Bruce Wayne’s 21st birthday, who’s not there, so everyone just assumes Clark is Bruce. And it just so happens no one knows what Bruce Wayne looks like? He hooks up with pre-Cheetah Barbara Ann Minerva, whom he tells he wants to be a veterinarian because dumb animals don’t know how to ask for help. I think this is supposed to be touching and not condescending. Deathstroke cameos in a failed assassination attempt which, facetiously, Clark is unfazed by and immediately forgets. The closest the story comes to a meaningful moment is when Clark remarks on the decadence of rich people eating gold flakes on caviar, but the whole issue is like Max Landis doing a PG-rated Brett Easton Ellis where he uses an insider’s perspective to affirm his superior self-awareness towards the rich kids he grew up with. Really appealing art by Joëlle Jones and vibrant colors by Rico Renzi.

The one-pager at the end of this issue is a high point for the series’ creep factor. Mr. Mxyzptlk, a character whom I love, especially for his license to break the fourth wall, is turned into the hideously honest voice of Landis’ narcissism as he imparts to the reader that fame is life:

“Who’s more real, you or me?…How many people know your name?…I was created as a character in 1944…Millions of people have known my name…I don’t need a body…I’m living in your head right now…When you think of me later…I’ll be alive again…And yet, I can promise with absolute certainty that I will never once think of YOU.”

Mxyzptlk wasn’t half as frightening when Alan Moore revealed his true form and set him on Superman. This is Landis trying to do Grant Morrison, Animal-Man-can-see-you kind of philosophical comics, but it’s malicious. There’s a panel where Mxy goes monstrous looking, so maybe this kind of existentialism frightens him, too – but if he’s frightened by the fact he’ll never be as famous as Mr. Mxyyzptlk, he’s also comforted by the fact he gets to be his voice for a moment in time. If you’ve ever met the children of famous people, or even heard them speak publicly, you start to notice this equation of obscurity and oblivion.

Owl, the fourth story, introduces Lex Luthor, and as great heroes are defined by their villains, so too do neurotic writers define themselves by their hero’s villains. Telegraphed as a follower of “Ayn Rand bull” by Lois Lane, Luthor gives a monologue to budding reporter Clark Kent about his philosophy of life, which is basically that geniuses who can work hard are rare, and they don’t tend to be people who’ve had things handed to them, and he doesn’t need people to like him in order to carry on what he thinks is his important work. Sounds like an okay guy, right? Is this what Landis thinks sounds sinister? Sure he’s arrogant about it, but this is the ethos of people who actually exist in real life and want to advance the human race, not a fantasy figure of Christlike selflessness. Christ didn’t need to be liked, either. Apparently Landis just has genuine contempt for the self-made Lex Luthors of the world. Clark then runs into the young Robin, who tells him that Batman needs a counterpart because darkness needs light, and fear needs hope, and I’m so tired of superhero dialogue where they talk about their own marketing strategies.

Jae Lee does great art, even though she draws everyone Asian. Lois Lane looks like Lois Long. Colorist June Chung does really beautiful impressionist style backgrounds.

Steve Dillon illustrates a slick 12 panel silent origin for the Parasite. This was one of the last pages he ever drew. RIP.

The fifth story, Eagle, is a routine as hackneyed as Hawk – Superman’s first encounter with a monster of Luthor’s creation, he shows up at Luthor’s office, Luthor has plausible deniability, yadda yadda yadda. The only interesting detail is how Clark’s inspiration to put an “S” on his chest came from an off-hand sarcastic remark from Luthor in the previous issue (about how special people don’t just put an “S” on their chests) and in this issue he decides that the “S” stands for “Super” based on another sarcastic remark from Luthor. Superman’s whole shtick is a troll on Luthor! Earlier in the issue, Clark says “I’m sincere a lot. It’s my thing” which is a good encapsulation of Landis’ faux-humility he projects onto Clark.

The one-pager closer is a real toss-off: a letter from Jimmy Olsen quitting The Daily Planet for not running a story exposing how Two-Face is really Harvey Dent. If Max Landis is so smart why does he think The Dark Knight is a good movie worth referencing?

Speaking of Jimmy Olsen, in the following story Angel he’s revealed as a gay black man, so maybe Max also thought Superman Lives was worth referencing. Or he’s simply into forced revisionist diversity. Just kidding, I read his Twitter feed; it’s the latter. Pete Ross visits from Smallville to mention that the “S” was also on the side of baby Kal-El’s pod, like Landis realized his mistake in the previous issues about its origin and decided to hedge bets that Luthor’s remarks were a coincidence. Almost the entire issue is Pete Ross telling Clark he needs to take being Superman more seriously. It’s very boring, but with nice art & color by Jonathan Case.

Valkyrie, the final story, is Superman meeting Lobo, whom Landis absolutely has no clue how to write. They fight and it’s kind of a rewrite of the Zod fight from Man of Steel, all over and done with pretty quickly, though artist Jock makes it look cool with his own unique style. A real anticlimax of a finish.

Superman: American Alien manages to be boring, pretentious and derivative all at once. It’s sheer mediocrity propped up by good-to-great artists who deserved better material. Landis likes Superman and has absolutely nothing to say with the character, only about him, without the conciseness of a ten minute YouTube diatribe. The book is a bestseller because its author is Internet famous for talking about Superman, wrestling, Star Wars and other clickbait, not because it’s good. Don’t even wait for the softcover edition. Track down his Joker-meets-Superman story with nice art by Jock – The Sound of One Hand Clapping, instead. It’s a lot better than anything in this waste of shelf space.

CREDITS

Writer, Max Landis; artists, Nick Dragotta, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock; colorists, Alex Guimares, Tommy Lee Edwards, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Lee Loughridge; lettering, John Workman; publisher, DC Comics.

World’s Funnest (April 2016)

 worldsfunnestMr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite are arguably DC’s greatest creations. As respective foils to Superman and Batman they’re perfect critiques of the characters: Mxy the childish trickster-god to a godlike man, and Bat-Mite a child playing god with the man he worships…who is still a child inside, at least emotionally. They’re both insanely powerful and also stand-ins for any precocious young comics readers, trying to imagine the most impossible situations to challenge these men who can do virtually anything. Bat-Mite’s version of the routine underscores the irony with an ill-fitting fan costume – he’s the original comicon cosplayer. World’s Funnest collects Evan Dorkin’s one-shot of the same name from 2000 along with the imps’ first Golden Age appearances and several other quality stories, and it’s a nearly perfect greatest-hits showcase for these uniquely irreverent characters.

The titular story alone is worth the price of admission. With a stunning list of guest artists doing either parodies of their own style (Frank Miller re-creating The Dark Knight Returns) or perfect imitations of classic styles from DC history (David Mazzucchelli doing Jack Kirby’s New Gods), Evan Dorkin sends Mxyzptlk on an apocalyptic death hunt for Bat-Mite across the DC Universe, offhandedly obliterating continuities and timelines with all the slapstick ferocity of Milk and Cheese filtered through an Eltingville Club level of inside-joke comics geekery. Arguably the only flaw is how some of his best jokes rely on the reader’s familiarity with obscure DC references like Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, but Dorkin goofs on so many other, better known targets like Superfriends and Kingdom Come that there’s something for everyone Like Eltingville Club, this is Dorkin spinning his fanboy self-hatred into comedy gold, subversively under the official DC banner – Batman and Superman are literally murdered within the first few pages, and then murdered several more times before the story is finished, as the Brian Bolland cover promises. It’s a breathtakingly hysterical, once-in-a-corporate-lifetime event that seems even more audacious sixteen years later.

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Note the early alternate spelling

This is followed up by the first appearances, with Siegel and Shuster’s “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk” from 1944 and “Batman Meets Bat-Mite” from 1959, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff. These stories have been reprinted a lot over the years but are obviously essential to an official Bat-Mite and Mxy compendium. Joe Shuster’s original design for Mxy is the most adorable he ever looked, as if a 1920s newspaper comic strip character came to visit Superman’s (slightly) more realistically-rendered world. Bat-Mite skirts the uncanny valley a little closer, resembling a midget in a Batman costume rather than a child – which is technically correct, since as he points out, he’s not an elf but comes from a dimension where all men are his size. This explanation is preceded by one of the greatest panels in comic book history:

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HI!

Their debuts are followed by another oft-reprinted but essential landmark: Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite’s first crossover story together from a 1960 issue of World’s Finest with art by Batman luminary Dick Sprang, by which point Mxyzptlk was redesigned to be an uglier imp, something more akin to Coiley the Spring Sprite. The story by Jerry Coleman is an inconsequential spectacle, but established the dynamic between the two pests for every subsequent meetup: Bat-Mite as the annoying goody-two-shoes to the more malevolent Mxy. Sightings of either character were pretty scarce afterwards, as the collection’s next story is plucked from nearly 20 years later – an odd six page back-up story from a 1979 Detective Comics entitled Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure! In what’s basically just an excuse for some DC staff to put themselves in a comic, Bat-Mite poofs into the offices of, yes, DC Comics and cajoles the vintage 1979 nerds (not a one without glasses, several with sideburns) to put him in Detective Comics. Which is the comic you just read. Get it? While the joke fails to have a punchline, at least the art by Michael Golden features a disgustingly cute version of Bat-Mite. And to give credit writer Rob Rozakis, while his story fails to be funny it may be the first to realize the self-referential, fourth-wall breaking possibilities of Bat-Mite as a fifth dimensional imp, and by corollary Mr. Mxyzptlk.

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Michael Golden’s Bat-Mite is just too adorbs

DC wasn’t yet ready to full dive into post-modernism, however, as Bat-Mite’s sole appearance in the 80s was a one-page cameo in a 1983 anniversary issue of The Brave and the Bold. Just as in his prior outing, he demands recognition from the corporate overlords (this time breaking the fourth wall outright by addressing the reader) only to be erased by a giant pencil a la Duck Amuck. The art is by Stephen DeStefano, although it’s such early work in his career that his personal style isn’t yet recognizable – unlike the page he contributed 16 years later to Dorkin’s World’s Funnest. While not quite a hidden gem, the inclusion of this forgotten rarity is definitely the kind of bonus indicating the volume’s organizers relished their task. The next two stories are Mxyzptlk tales from the late 80s era of Superman, first with writer/artist John Byrne’s re-introduction of the character and then a later appearance by writers Roger Stern and Tom Peyer, with art by Paris Cullins. Byrne’s story is as exemplary of high quality mainstream superhero comics as anything else he was doing during the 80s, while Stern & Peyer pit a fun novelty matchup of Mxy against Lex Luthor for a change. Cullins, whose art I wasn’t previously familiar with, has a style similar to John Byrne’s only more unhinged – he gets some wild expressions into his human characters, while Mxyzptlk often looks like a demonic gremlin. In other words, cool stuff.

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The gloriously gross 80s: Paris Cullins’ Mxyzptlk

The second best comic in the collection after Dorkin’s is Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill’s post-Crisis reintroduction of Bat-Mite from 1992, Legend of the Dark Mite, which I cajoled Andrew into reading and reviewing here. Surprisingly, generously also included is Grant & O’Neill’s perennially unpopular follow-up from 1995, Mitefall (it’s great, but shops are still trying to get it out of their discount bins to this day) which continues the adventures of Bob Overdog and Bat-Mite in order to take the piss out of Knightfall storyline. Between this and Dorkin’s story, Bat-Mite really achieves his full potential as an avatar for writers seeking to mock DC from within. Sandwiched between these tales is a more sedate 1999 World’s Finest meeting of Bat-Mite and Mxy, which actually isn’t out of order thanks to an opening caption declaring it to take place “five years earlier” so the continuity commissars can’t complain. The Imp-Possible Dream has a humdrum plot but a surprisingly wry and snarky script by Karl Kesel – only Mxy could really get away with a Batman/Robin gay joke, right? Artist Peter Doherty’s versions of the imps kind of resemble Sylvester P. Smythe of Cracked magazine, while his human figures and faces are unfortunately stiff by comparison. Overall, it’s okay. Really, the book’s sole offensive inclusion is the concluding two-parter from 2008, Lil’ Leaguers, from the series Superman/Batman. In what Mxyzptlk admits to be a sales-generating gimmick (the most crass use of fourth wall breaking), superdeformed chibi versions of the DCU invade Batman and Superman’s world to run around being cuter, more marketable versions of them. Bat-Mite shows up for two pages at the conclusion to explain his collusion in the prank. It’s not a Mxy story, it’s not a Bat-Mite story and there’s a creepy lolicon vibe when lil’ Catwoman jumps on regular-size Batman. While not a bad comic – Rafael Albuquerque’s art is certainly appealing – it feels like unnecessary filler.

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Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill’s Legend of the Dark Mite: comics in the 90s assumed you’d read the classics

Born of the era in comics when superheroes excelled at flights of fancy, Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite’s history is almost as long as Superman and Batman’s. In 1986, the year of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns when superheroes were being put to bed, Alan Moore’s revelation of a malignant Mxy as Superman’s ultimate nemesis in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow spoke slyly to the genre’s sea change; that powerful forces once joyful and innocent were degenerating into something sinister. Bat-Mite has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years, with media such as the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold employing him as a post-modern mouthpiece for multiple generations of Bat-fans, with the inspired casting of Paul Reubens. As superheroes are ultimately creatures of the comics medium no matter how many movies and cartoons are shoveled out for the illiterate masses, Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk are creatures representing the medium’s unlimited possibilities for pure anarchic imagination. The talents who contributed to this book are many of the greatest in the industry. World’s Funnest  both the Evan Dorkin story and now the expanded collection bearing the same name, is an absolute must-have.

CREDITS

World’s Funnest; writers, Evan Dorkin, Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, Jerry Coleman, Bob Rozakis, Stephen DeStefano, John Byrne, Roger Stern, Tom Peyer, Alan Grant, Karl Kesel, Michael Green, Mike Johnson; artists, Mike Allred, Frank Cho, Stephen DeStefano, Dave Gibbons, Jaime Hernandez, Stuart Immonen, Phil Jimenez, Doug Mahnke, David Mazzucchelli, Frank Miller, Sheldon Moldoff, Glen Murakami, Alex Ross, Scott Shaw, Jay Stephens, Ty Templeton, Jim Woodring, Joe Shuster, Dick Sprang, Michael Golden, John Byrne, Paris Cullins, Kevin O’Neill, Peter Doherty, Rafael Albuquerque; collection editor, Robin Wildman; publisher, DC Comics.

Dark Night: A True Batman Story (June 2016)

Dark_Night_A_True_Batman_Story_2016Superheroes appeal to children because, as Paul Dini points out in this memoir, they’re a child’s power fantasy. This book is about how he got brutally injured in a mugging while working as a writer on Batman: The Animated Series and his irrational shock that Batman wasn’t there to save him. Therefore the book is also about the fragile mental state of adults who still idolize superheroes beyond childhood, but Dini skims over that. He still idolizes funny underwear men for a living to this day, and that perceptual limitation is really the only thing keeping this very good comic from being great. Still, it’s probably the best Batman story of the year by far. They should’ve gone all out on promotion, instead of making it a Vertigo Book and arbitrarily consigning it to second-tier notice, for the sin of admitting Batman isn’t real.

A young man’s interest in fictional superheroes as objects of sincere admiration, rather than entertainment, grows inversely to their maturation, including the ability to physically defend themselves. This is the true stereotype of the 98 pound weakling who’d rather read Batman comics than play sports growing up – and now it’s worse, they’d rather play the Arkham Asylum games which Paul happened to write. Batman wins every millennial’s popularity contest for being the so-called “most realistic” superhero. His lack of superpowers suggests the illusion that if his geekiest admirers were sufficiently motivated by the most primal early trauma (premature loss of parents) and had access to unlimited time and money, they too could become strong enough to scare bullies. To step back and chart one’s enjoyment of Batman over time is to graph one’s personal growth or lack thereof. For those lucky enough to land a job writing the character, reality can get even more confused if you’re not sufficiently grounded. Paul Dini was vicariously living in Batman’s world for a living before reality kicked the living shit out of him.

Dark Night is about his rehabilitation and the wisdom garnered, only he didn’t seem to learn all that much in the final analysis. So he uses Batman, who has more moral authority than Jesus to people of my generation, as one of several licensed characters serving as an imaginary chorus whose words can convince us, and himself. It’s a very well done comic, but also a bit of a therapy session that’s overly self-congratulatory. Big questions about the power of myth or the actual danger of crime are sidestepped in favor of solipsism. At the conclusion he postures towards sharing some greater knowledge from the experience, but it winds up a fatuous “shit happens, dust yourself off and don’t be bitter” kind of message, after frequent avoidances of weightier aspects touched briefly and then ignored. The only one he devotes any attention to, since it figured most prominently into the difficulty of his recovery, is the low self-esteem of the average nerd. Even one whose dream of writing Batman cartoons came true.

I grew up on Batman: The Animated Series and as many fans will tell you, Dini wrote several of the most memorable episodes. What seems obvious in hindsight is how many of his episodes were either about bullied wimps or the lovesick: Joker’s Favor, The Man Who Killed Batman, Heart of Ice, and especially Mad as a Hatter – an effective origin tale for The Mad Hatter in which Jervis Tetch plays White Knight to his own workplace Alice and becomes a Dark Knight villain. At the episode’s climax, Alice is rendered comatose by mind control and Batman enrages the lovelorn geek by pointing out that what he truly wants is “a soulless little doll,” not an actual three-dimensional woman. Dini makes a big point of establishing his unsuccessful love life as the catalyst of fateful evening, albeit indirectly – it happened after he walked home from a bad date, rather than accepting a ride from the young would-be starlet who’d just given him the kiss-off. As Dini points out, the walk was through wealthy West Hollywood so it wasn’t an irrational assumption that he’d be safe. As he imagines various Batman villains anthropomorphizing his inner demons, the face of womanly torment is Poison Ivy rather the perhaps more apt choice of Mad Hatter. When narratively taking stock of his poor life decisions, chief among them is his pursuit of dating actress/model types whom he could brag about to his friends, rather than a woman he could someday marry. Soulless little dolls. As the adage goes, Hollywood is high school with money and a writer for Tiny Toons with ties to Steven Spielberg is like a dork whose rich parents are lending him their Bentley.

Dini puts so much weight into his lack of validation by beautiful women before getting jumped – and then, weirdly, the only follow-up is the unsurprising detail that one of these gold diggers barely cared about his situation when called up for sympathy. By this point we’ve already read the chilling page where, bloodied and beaten, he realizes upon staggering home that there will be no one inside to comfort him. Later in a flashback sequence during his hospitalization, he recalls being stood up by another pretty girl as his date to the Emmys. Despite winning and taking home one of the awards, his self-loathing apparently ran so deep he proceeded to cut himself in front of the mirror using the statuette, expressing disgust with his own chubby bespectacled nerd self. It’s a stunning and powerfully symbolic admission. He prefaces the night of his attack with all this fear of sexual inadequacy, but fails to draw any connection between the twin injuries to his masculinity: romantic rejection and getting your ass kicked. It doesn’t get any worse than that for the male ego, especially in the course of a single evening. His subsequent despair that he somehow deserved what happened, as karmic balance to his artistic success in life, is a crisis of manhood that he thinks himself too unique to grapple with. As his own narrator to this chapter in his life, he never lets on any understanding that the reader might have endured the same fears and sufferings, including his soon-to-be lowest point.

Recuperating from the horrific attack, holed up in his apartment and descending into depression, the principal question quickly becomes how Paul will find the will to continue writing Batman in a world where Batman doesn’t swoop in to save you IRL. The most striking passages of this comic aren’t Dini imagining Batman as a stern father figure, telling him to get up and stand tall after being knocked down. They are of The Joker insidiously urging him to wallow in self-pity and retreat into comforting overindulgence – fast food, video games, movies, et cetera – after the world has traumatized him. Joker even sells this retreat as a return to the “childhood bedroom” of Dini’s “invisible” youth, fleshed out in a few autobiographical pages at the start. This is particularly fascinating when taking into account how The Joker has equaled or eclipsed Batman’s popularity in mainstream culture by embodying narcissistic hedonism. (The 1989 film puts the sensitive creative person’s spin on this: The Joker as the dark power fantasy of the insensitive artist who “makes art until someone dies.”) Paul’s apartment is a den of toys, animation cells and “the trappings of geek nirvana.” Holy Target Audience, does he even realize he’s describing a large section of his readership? What’s disappointing is that he took what could have been a widely relatable true-life parable for every superhero fan about the limits of their escapism, and the soul death of arrested development, and instead portrays the restoration of his professional status quo – product output at the dream factory – as the crucial triumph.

Probably the most fascinating and telling scene is Dini’s anecdotal rebuttal to the traditional methods of manning up. As the wounds start to heal, Batman recommends that if he feels unattractive and physically vulnerable, he could lose weight, get in shape and start learning how to fight. In response to this completely reasonable proposal, Paul does a shock jump-forward to the day he almost bought a gun. Batman then mocks him for wanting to be like James Bond. In an evasive obfuscation, Paul retorts that he could never be like Batman. Now, Batman wasn’t implying that Paul become a real life Batman, just that he could regain confidence by dropping a few pounds and looking less of an easy target. Batman, who is of course Paul Dini writing a dialogue with himself, accuses Paul Dini of engaging in a power fantasy. It’s circular and manipulative; Paul is actually reassuring himself that there’s no middle ground between being totally defenseless and deluding yourself into thinking you can become James Bond by buying a gun, or Batman by taking karate lessons.

In the introspective wrap-up of the book’s conclusion, The Scarecrow taunts Paul with the potentiality of living his life in fear of future assailants, to which he retorts that he can’t live his life in fear of lightning strikes, either. He seems oblivious to the fact it is an extraordinarily privileged position to regard potentially fatal assault and battery as a statistical freak occurrence, no more predictable than natural disasters. For pity’s sake, one of the best scenes in the comic is the LAPD’s indifference to Paul’s plight after the incident, and his incredulousness that they’re not even going to dust for prints like The Dark Knight Detective™. He certainly admits to the hard-learned fact that the police aren’t always going to be there for him, let alone Batman, but he still won’t take any personal measures to feel safer in the future, still regarding violence as something unreal. Rationalizing to Batman that he’d have been murdered if he’d “tried anything physical,” he’s more or less alluding to the “one bad day” trope of The Killing Joke every Bat-fan knows by heart, telling The Joker that to “embrace anger and cruelty and try to use them to feel powerful” would be going down the path of Joker rather than Batman. Jeez, Paul, we get it, you didn’t want to start lifting weights. It’s a bit socially irresponsible to promote the idea that taking measures towards self-defense is tempting fate, just because you never thought you’d have your life threatened and don’t want to believe it could ever happen twice.

There’s an awkward racial component in Dark Night, injected but never acknowledged, which may help explain why Dini depicts himself as so guilty over his instinct to somehow toughen up after his bloody beating. Yes, the two guys who stomped him bore the curse of Ham and moments before their paths cross, Dini’s inner monologue chastises himself not to “be the dick who changes direction just because he sees a couple of black guys.” Later, Batman criticizes him for not thinking like Batman would upon seeing “two figures huddled close together, faces obscured, moving toward toward you in a predatory manner!” Hey, Bats, you don’t really need to profile when you live in a fictional city unstuck in time where all the criminals still wear fedoras. Batman then blames Paul for not changing direction from the two thug-lyfe looking gentlemen because he was “too worried about looking scared or judgmental.” It’s worth considering that at the time, it had only been a year since the Rodney King riots and Los Angeles was still on edge about black-on-white violence. One page later, a black colleague at the Warner Brothers Animation office bluntly asks Paul if the guys who did it were black. And he lies – he says only one of them was. “Damn it” the staffer says, and offers Paul a handshake, an implicit apology on behalf of all brothers. The matter is never brought up afterwards, and Dini doesn’t feel it incumbent on himself to explain to the reader what it says about him that he felt the need to lie. Later, there’s a suspicious glance cast at a black guy who approaches him in a music store, but whew – turns out he’s just a Tiny Toons fan. Again, as omniscient narrator, Dini never acknowledges any of this racial tension. I’d guess his reluctance to start seeing the world in a harsher light is at least somewhat tied to a fear of racially profiling which his conscience can’t allow. This fits right in to his self-absolving faith that the morally superior attitude towards violent crime is, as he literally states, to think of it as lightning which won’t strike him twice.

Dark Night promises more than it delivers in terms of thematic depth. However, the emotion is all there. The concept of a Batman writer, especially a talented one like Paul Dini, using the characters as invisible friends and enemies throughout his true story of surviving being the victim of a violent crime is such a solid, inspired basis for a graphic novel. It’s the kind of meta-story for which these characters are very well suited after 75 years of exhausting every possible straightforward comic book plot. They function best now as icons, which is why the comic is a clever and enjoyable read and The Lego Batman Movie will make more money than all the other Batman movies combined. It’s always preferable to see more poetic use of the characters than seeing them wedged into ill-fitting “realistic” stories. Dini does muddle around the big questions when he uses Batman for rhetorical stances on actual important matters like guns and criminal justice. What’s genuinely moving are the times when he sincerely exposes his vulnerability, holds his ego to account and examines how creative artistry shapes his worldview, in good times and bad.

Speaking of artistry, there’s really nothing to say about Eduardo Risso’s illustration except that it’s masterful. Dini’s career requires him to visually reference not only Batman: The Animated Series but other pop culture from Beany and Cecil to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and he’s always on-model. His own original designs for the Batman villains are simultaneously ugly and very appealing. He draws Paul past and present, in realistic and caricatured styles, sometimes changing from panel to panel depending on narrative needs, without ever misstepping. The color is also incredible, emphasizing every mood and blending human beings with Paul’s cartoon imaginings seamlessly.

This “True Batman Story” ends on a note of hope, with Harley Quinn welcoming Dini back to work. Harley Quinn is one of the worst Batman characters ever created, a supremely irritating Manic Pixie Dream Girl that could only have been invented by someone with issues around women.

Still, at least she only shows up in the last couple pages. Highly recommended!

CREDITS

Dark Night: A True Batman Story; story, Paul Dini; art, Eduardo Risso; letterer, Todd Klein; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 5 (August 2016)

DKTMR-Cv5-ds-aa40bAs the millennials like to say, I just can’t. Go on reading The Master Race any longer, that is. Maybe Miller and Azzarrello have something amazing planned for the conclusion, but anyone following this series bimonthly instead of waiting for the trade is throwing their money away. Half the issues so far have been mediocre, but this is the first to be a total waste of time. With the exception of a nice underwater Aquaman double splash page, and some cool panels of the Kandorians finally getting some of the wind knocked out of their sails, all of the imagery is recycled – not only from previous issues of the series; Miller actually swipes from himself by putting us in the cockpit of the Bat-Tank once again, and putting him back in his power suit. The only twist is that he’s now joined, in a lame pseudo-big moment cliffhanger, by Superman in his own powersuit – Superman, whose apparent death in a previous issue has now been revealed to have only been so much pointless padding for the already anemic storyline.

The mini-comic is a real stunner of a disappointment as well. There are almost no backgrounds whatsoever; Superman’s daughter and a Kandorian are flying around trading vacuous quips atop fluorescent gradients. Nothing remotely interesting happens.

The only reason I didn’t ask for my money back is that comic book shops are dying and need all the help they can get, but crap like this is exactly why they’re dying. Monthly comics probably shouldn’t be a thing any longer, unless publishers want to make a real effort towards content that justifies the price tag. Maybe they should focus on publishing “graphic novels” and transitioning the shops into full-on bookstores, while putting more effort into promoting work like Paul Dini’s Dark Night: A True Batman Story which could appeal to both casual and longtime Batman fans. Last month’s double-issue-length Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade was surprisingly entertaining – clearly Miller and Azzarello are capable of doing decent, serviceable Batman stories, which only makes a comic like this one so insulting. If the whole trifle were published all at once in one volume, it might be an overall enjoyable read. But at present, this series is a scam.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Three; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade (June 2016)

lastcrusadeIn their 2016 campaign to Make Batman Great Again, Miller and Azzarello have temporarily abandoned all pretense of progress – as indicated by the retro DC logo on the cover – and gone straight back to the source with this one-shot prequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Batman nerds know Miller predicted the death of Jason Todd in the first issue of that series, before DC made it official with the Death in the Family storyline. You know, the one where fans could dial a 1-800 number and cast their vote to not to let Jason survive The Joker’s beating. Thus does The Last Crusade have a weird circuitous purpose: retelling a story whose conclusion is foregone, as the prequel to a story which predicted the event…as a hypothetical aside. Retcon-Elseworlds-Rehashing at its most truly incestuous.

The pleasant surprise is that Miller and Azzarello actually outdo their recent efforts. The Last Crusade is a more enjoyable read than The Master Race has been so far, and a better value at $6.99 for 57 pages compared to Master Race’s $5.99 for 35. Unlike the shallow bombast of Batman and Superman saving the world from Kandorians, this story aims low and deep and hits its target. From the start, there’s a nicely quiet sense of dread on a personal, non-apocalyptic level, building suspense as The Joker orchestrates his escape from Arkham while the division between Jason and an aged Batman grows deeper. The thrust of the action is utterly perfunctory as they investigate the most routine of Poison Ivy schemes, with a little special guest muscle by Killer Croc. Joker is separate from all this to the point of practically being in another book, his portentous importance is telegraphed by the cover. Even for the Batman comics reader unfamiliar with Jason Todd’s death at Joker’s hands, their fatal crossing of paths carries the aura of grim inevitability although the final pages don’t make the actual fatality particularly apparent.

I didn’t grow up in the Jason Todd years of the comics but if his gimmick was being a “Dick” instead of a “Dick Grayson”, it does read slightly weird for the Batman of Frank Miller’s sovereign Dark Knight Universe to reprimand this Robin for being too sadistic or reckless, when he’s been far and away the most inglorious bastard Batman of all time. Under questioning, Miller and Azzarello would probably argue that since this is the near-retirement stage of that Batman, he’s a little more mature and less psychotic than he was in the All-Star Batman and Robin days. Everything about superhero continuity lore has become so cyclical since the 80s, yet Miller and Azzarello still kind of justify this rehash by returning to the idea of Batman as a prize fighter whom everyone knows is past his prime – exploring his shame, the fact he knows he’s slowing down, that his friends and enemies are noticing too. This focus on aging, and on flesh not keeping up with a willing spirit, creates a thematic through-line with Dark Knight Returns and inadvertently kind of points up the absurdity of the sequels, where Bruce never seems to get tired anymore although he’s older than ever. Batman’s internal monologues and narration aren’t as memorable as those of Dark Knight Returns but they absolutely flow from the same vein. Prequel or sequel, this slim volume is so much closer to the kind of follow-up fans wanted than The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Better late than never?

John Romita Jr.’s art provides the work a needed prequel continuity as well. His draftsmanship’s sketchy grittiness is much closer to Miller’s style than Andy Kubert, as is Peter Steigerwald’s pale and muted coloring. The script doesn’t make the insulting choices seen in The Master Race, of padding a thin plotline across pointlessly large action panels. Here the terse writing is thoughtfully staged at a steady pace without filler. As a comic the action feels alive, rather than looking like conceptual art for a film or storyboards for a cartoon.

A few words about The Joker: first of all, he sells comics. That’s why he’s on the cover. But as someone who’s thoroughly tired of the character’s overexposure and hype, I’d forgotten how much I like Frank Miller’s Joker and it’s kind of nice to spend time with him again. Given Frank’s politics, I’m shocked he’s not re-teamed with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Miller’s Joker was conceived pre-Killing Joke and was arguably (unfortunately) more the basis for the modern mainstream conception of Joker, the version who’s supposed to be scary and edgy and never actually funny. This take made the most sense when envisioning an older version of the character to fight an older version of Batman – sort of what the real life Bill Murray became; not so much a sad clown as a clown grown jaded and smug. Miller just writes him so well as a wistful queen, and unlike Heath Ledger Miller’s Joker is genuinely enigmatic and creepy because Miller is kind of crazy himself.

If you haven’t bothered picking up The Master Race yet, you should definitely wait for the trade. But if you’d like a swig of Frank Miller that actually tastes like The Dark Knight Returns, The Last Crusade is a satisfying little one-shot.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, John Romita Jr; inks and colors, Peter Steigerwald; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 4 (June 2016)

STK699760Once again Miller and Azzarello punish me for getting my hopes up with this series. Once again, too, I notice myself praising Miller alone for every good chapter and the two of them for every bad one. As the series lurches onward, the finality of The Dark Knight Returns and its pitch perfect “good enough” grace note of a conclusion to Batman’s adventures are only further diluted. The Master Race is in an alternating holding pattern, as I recall issue #2 was similarly lethargic. The plot progresses predictably with zero surprises to the reader. The spoilers are two sentences long. $5.99 for two sentences worth of plot development, stretched out by endless splash panels and another mini-comic of wonky Frank Miller art, which is sadly the only memorable part of the experience. For DC, not Detective Comics but the asset of Time Warner’s media empire, to charge $5.99 for this while an indy outfit like Avatar Press charges a buck less per new installment of Providence is utterly pitiful. On the plus side Miller does retain a consistently pessimistic, contemporary point of view – Obama and Trump are again invoked and this time disparaged as equally cowardly appeasers to the eponymous Master Race. He and Azzarello do know how to plot out their simple, cynical story. The insult to the reader, which ruins these positives, is how blatantly he’s elongating a four issue story across eight issues for what can only be a contractual obligation. Per Miller’s worst habits, they haven’t even been published in a timely manner.

Being a member of that tiny hipster elite who can find some value in The Dark Knight Strikes Back, it saddens me to realize every time I reach Miller’s mini-comic midway through a new Master Race that his late-period derangement, which Big Two fanboys consider his weakness, isn’t even present here. His art is still big and crazy, he just didn’t care about this project enough to contribute more than a few pages every couple months, leaving Andy Kubert to carry that load with competence that feels reliably adequate to the point of blandness. The new series has been dishearteningly lacking in any big or crazy ideas; the storyline is neither as jarringly off-kilter as Dark Knight 2 nor as fresh and original as Dark Knight 1. This is a book that goes out of its way not to take chances. Dark Knight 3 simply exists, as Dark Knight 4 could someday exist and make all thast came before just a little less special. Something like All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder was at least a beautiful disaster; a joyously irreverent prank. Master Race reads as though Azzarello came up with the uninspired story purely as a mechanical continuation of what is now a franchise (there’s a prequel coming) and Miller peppered in his stylized dialogue afterward.

Has anything really innovative actually been done with Bats or Supes since 1986 when Miller and Moore wrote their imaginary final adventures? Every other week DC relaunches their “universe” hoping someone will figure out how to make them relevant again, and it seems increasingly apparent that The Dark Knight Returns and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow really were the ultimate showstoppers. If Batman is doomed like all superheroes of the current era to be merely an amorphous multimedia IP rather than a comics character, the best entertainment anyone can hope for are occasionally some good cartoons. Maybe when The Lego Batman Movie is the highest profiting Batman movie of all time DC will finally give up on self-serious, pointless cash grab comics for nostalgic manboy fanboys and grow a new comics readership where the real money is: actual children.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Four; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 3 (February 2016)

dk3After Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Dark Knight III: The Master Race suddenly seems a lot better. The film wasn’t as bad as everyone histrionically made it out to be – Zach Snyder at least understands how to use these characters to compose compelling imagery, unlike Christopher Nolan. What the film reconfirmed to me is how irrevocably superheroes are tied to the comics page. This is their medium, and ironically only the relentless march of superhero movies can make me appreciate the value of a superhero comic. Frank Miller and Zach Snyder do have several things in common: an unpopular public image, a uncomfortable fixation on rape as a dramatic device, and an ambivalence bordering on contempt for Superman. As many reviews have pointed out, Ben Affleck’s Batman is essentially Frank Miller’s Dark Knight brought to life; an older and surlier abstraction of grimly righteous vigilantism who, yes, will pull the trigger of a gun if it means saving a life because that’s a decision a so-called “realistic” superhero would have to make, you liberal fanboy wimps. It’s really too bad Snyder didn’t do The Dark Knight Returns instead of Watchmen or BvS, not that BvS didn’t just swipe DKR sequences left and right throughout. Miller is a simpleton but Snyder does a simpleton’s adaptation of a simpleton. All the hammering on about gods and man and superman feels like it has a bit more of a point in Miller’s hands.

Issue 3 finally brings Bruce Wayne and Batman out of the shadows and as I’d hoped, Frank Miller still writes those cranky internal monologues better than anyone. If anything he’s writing them better than ever, now that he’s aged within five years of his old-man-Batman. He also incorporates topical problems better than any Marvel superhero screenwriters, who tend to namecheck “the issues” while studiously avoiding alienating any potential section of their audience, or David S. Goyer’s various Batman scripts from the past decade which use a ponderous tone to mask their dull lack of imagination. Miller’s deftly sardonic usage of text message balloons and Tweets are as relevant and witty as his usage of cable news in the previous two volumes of the Dark Knight saga, and even pay off in a funny scene when various Gotham-ites are too busy with their phones to pay attention to the super-apocalypse. Miller actually puts some pretty harsh anti-consumerist stuff in the mouths of his characters, reminding that though the medium has been generally dumbed down by the death of print, it’s still beneath the mainstream radar enough to function as a gutter platform against sacred technophilia.

The story is dumb as can be, but the writing has a lot of wicked satirical flourishes besides making fun of these kids today and their social media addiction. There’s a Trump cameo that probably wasn’t originally planned when the series started back in November 2015, so it’s nice to know the series is alive and malleable. Thematically Miller seems to be developing a redemption of Superman – something Snyder insincerely made overtures towards. Having been a government stooge until now, Supes is at last poised to fight in the right alongside Carrie Kelly and Bats. All it took was betrayal of the titular Master Race to which he belongs, and to which the Earth’s governments have collectively surrendered. Unbound by Hollywood squeamishness, Miller is allowed the full effects of his cynicism towards both the genre and modern society: his superheroes obliterate millions of people and millions more respond with media-saturated apathy. The unfairly maligned The Dark Knight Strikes Again felt like a true reflection of recent post-9/11 discord compared to the moment-of-silence-now-back-to-tights-and-fights business acumen from the rest of DC and Marvel. Dark Knight III‘s story reads like Frank Miller screaming in your ear that things have only gotten worse, as the slicker Andy Kubert art suggests a world painted over with a shinier gloss of distraction in the interim.

Kubert’s art is growing on me though, aping Miller’s staging and character designs at the right moments, and well complimented by Klaus Janson’s inks. Brad Anderson’s coloring continues to impress, especially his use of muted colors in the Antarctic and underground locales. Miller indulges in a splash page or reveal practically every two pages, but Kubert’s art justifies them and his command of visual language is solid. Unfortunately it’s used as a crutch throughout the otherwise forgettable Miller-drawn mini-comic of this issue starring Green Lantern. Apparently DC has been printing some of these issues with the mini-comic scaled to full size at the issue’s end, which is a mistake because having a comic-within-a-comic is an artistic choice unique only to comics, and comics need the boosterism.

Against better taste, Miller’s misanthropic idiosyncrasies continue to intrigue as to what he’ll do in the DC toybox. The serial installments may not be worth the cover price but as a whole, the whole experience is improbably shaping into something worthwhile.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Three; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

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