Deathbed #2 (May 2018)

Deathbed #2

Deathbed still has pacing issues. Williamson does a lot better without exposition on the girl. The first issue pretended she was the protagonist. This issue reveals she’s the sidekick. She’s a good sidekick, but just the sidekick.

And it’s not even because the lead guy–Luna (the aged but still virile adventurer–seriously, how long has it been since Tom Strong established the old man adventurer in comics); anyway, its not because the lead guy gets more to do. He obviously does, because there’s a big fight at a funeral. Artist Rossmo’s comedy chops exceed his action. The action is good. A little busy but good. The comedy is great.

The comedy art will need to be great because Deathbed isn’t just about Luna and his biographer having adventures. It’s about Luna growing as a person. Williamson writes Luna the grower better than Luna the shower. Oh, sorry, I must still be thinking about how fixated Deathbed is at showing Luna nude. It might be funny if the biographer cared but she doesn’t. Instead it’s weird. Is it a machismo thing?

Anyway. Much improved second issue.

It does still read too fast.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Riley Rossmo; colorist, Ivan Plascencia; letterer, Deron Bennett; editor, Amedeo Turturro; publisher, Vertigo.

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Deathbed #1 (April 2018)

Deathbed #1

I’ve been reading indie books so long I forgot what Vertigo pacing feels like. Besides the pacing, Deathbed actually doesn’t feel too much like a “Vertigo book.” Sure, the witty, buxom female protagonist feels like a Vertigo book–oh, no, am I going to regret saying it didn’t feel like a Vertigo book–but the subject of the book doesn’t feel like a Vertigo “hero.”

Deathbed is about a failing writer who agrees to ghostwrite the autobiography of some guy she’s never heard of. But he’s rich. And it turns out he’s a monster hunter. It’s never clear whether or not the protagonist–Val–is aware there are monsters. It’s a problem, but writer Joshua Williamson skips over it. He’s got the issue to finish.

It’s going to be six issues, which is probably fine. Nothing much happens here–not in terms of establishing the protagonist (though it’s entirely possible she’s not going to get any more character than she’s got at the end of issue one)–except there’s eventually mummies attacking a naked old (but astoundingly fit) guy and him killing them all.

It’s not a spoiler. It’s kind of the point of the book. He’s on his final quest–rid the world of bad guys until one of them kills him. Val, ghostwriter, will be there to watch.

Riley Rossmo’s art is all right, but the book’s so rushed there’s not a lot of time to appreciate it. There’s a strange reliance on double page spreads, which just hurry things along even more.

Deathbed needs to slow down.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Riley Rossmo; colorist, Ivan Plascencia; letterer, Deron Bennett; editor, Amedeo Turturro; publisher, Vertigo.

Frostbite 1 (November 2016)

Frostbite #1

You know what, Frostbite would be a perfectly fine graphic novel. Maybe not with the colors–Luis NCT adds a bunch of fake perspective with the pointalized coloring and it takes even more personality out of Jason Shawn Alexander’s art, but as a single sitting commitment, it’d be fine.

It’s about some post-apocalyptic wasteland with an artificially created atomic winter complete with a mysterious plague called frostbite. Freezes the body into an ice cube. Can’t you just see it on a TV show? I feel like the CW just needs to commit to a Vertigo anthology TV show and then we could get back to more interesting comics from them. But maybe not.

There’s a plucky, but dark, Han Solo-type leading this group of ice mercenaries or smugglers or something. Doesn’t matter. There’s an annoying scientist the team has to save so the world can be saved. It’s like when a TV pilot just doesn’t do it. I don’t care. The hook isn’t in. Not with the art; even though Alexander’s got the right setting, he doesn’t have fluid enough lines. His art doesn’t move.

And he’s really cheap on backgrounds.

Maybe I’ll read the first trade.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Jason Shawn Alexander; colorist, Luis NCT; letterer, Steve Wands; editor, Maggie Howell and Jamie S. Rich; publisher, Vertigo.

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.

Suiciders 1 (April 2015)

Suiciders #1

Because no one remembers Escape From L.A., it’s time for Suiciders. But people do remember Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome–or at least the Thunderdome. Writer and artist Lee Bermejo rips off one of those movies, or just any other movie where post-apocalyptic guys fight in an arena to do the death for the enjoyment of the masses. Wasn’t it in a Zorro too?

There’s nothing original about Suiciders, except maybe bringing illegal immigration into it except it’s probably something Judge Dredd did thirty years ago.

But the comic’s extremely readable. Bermejo’s not a good writer, but his dialogue’s passable (maybe editorial actually did some work on the comic) and it’s a gorgeous looking comic book. Suiciders gets away with everything because it looks gorgeous.

When will the stupidity outweigh the gorgeous art? Depends on how much cool stuff Bermejo gets to draw.

It’s a desperate attempt from Vertigo though.

CREDITS

The Brutality Malady; writer and artist, Lee Bermejo; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Jared K. Fletcher; editors, Gregory Lockard and Will Dennis; publisher, Vertigo.

Moonshadow 4 (December 1994)

Moonshadow #4

This issue has Moonshadow and Ira getting forced into military service. It’s an intergalactic war, which gives Muth a lot of great stuff to draw. Moonshadow is conceptually low-tech and almost junky in how it shows extraterrestrial civilization, but Muth does find occasion for some really beautiful details. Space travel through individual bubbles, for example, is breathtaking.

DeMatteis has a lot about war, which he always tells from Moon’s romanticized point of view, even when Moon doesn’t think he’s being romantic. There’s a great little subplot for Ira too. DeMatteis tells it over a page or two–Moonshadow is told in summary, with short emphasized scenes. DeMatteis sometimes focuses these well, sometimes poorly. This issue he focuses them well throughout.

The most affecting part of the issue takes place in flashback, one of Moon’s mother’s memories. DeMatteis forces this flashback (as he does them all) but the content’s strong.

B+ 

CREDITS

The Crying of the Wind; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

Moonshadow 3 (November 1994)

Moonshadow #3

Things get a little too slow this issue, with Moon stuck in an asylum and Ira, his combination sidekick and antagonist, has to break him out. Why? Because Ira needs Moon to work odd jobs to support them. In the meantime, Moon has some encounters with his fellow inmates and there’s a lovely sequence when he plays the flute for them.

Muth’s art for that sequence is gorgeous. It flows, which is sort of strange, since the second half of the issue has a lot of action and a lot of examples of Muth not flowing. He does straight action scenes, very realistic painted panels. They’re technically good, but a little too static. It doesn’t help DeMatteis’s script kind of runs around in a circle too.

If there had been something along the way, something significant for Moon, it would’ve worked out a whole lot better. Instead, it’s gorgeous, troubled.

B 

CREDITS

The Crying of the Wind; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 8 (August 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #8

Either the reader is going to buy into Gaiman’s setup for this issue or the reader is going to reject it. Even before Gaiman gets into the “meat” of the issue, which is basically a lengthy monologue from Dream about the importance of Death. Both as a natural event and as Dream’s sister.

The issue opens with them seeing each other for the first time after Dream’s escape from captivity and his quest. Gaiman goes really far on the self-aware dialogue, using Death to expound on the comic book and on its protagonist.

He also goes with an inanely cheap ending; many of Sandman’s worst moments are just ones cribbed from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (without any of the context).

Once again, Gaiman does a montage of regular people who he doesn’t care about. It’s slightly less tedious than the overdone immortal sibling dialogue.

Dringenberg’s art annoys too.

C- 

CREDITS

The Sound of Her Wings; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Mike Dringenberg; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 7 (July 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #7

Ah, the big fight issue. Doctor Destiny versus Dream for control of the Dreamworld. Or whatever it’s called. After the two stand-off in the diner, after some glimpses of the world going mad, Doctor Destiny has a trippy dream he’s Caesar and then the big fight. It’s the two of them against a white background. Not the most visceral setting for a comic book fight scene.

Gaiman has a lot of problems trying to make this issue work as a comic. He’s so wrapped up in traditions, he doesn’t just not do anything new, he doesn’t do anything worthwhile. The glimpses to the world gone mad don’t create concern, they create distance.

Dringenberg’s pencils don’t help things. The awkwardly proportioned figures change throughout, without rhyme or reason. Sandman gives the pretense of thoughtfulness and depth, but it’s generic.

There’s no sense of scale or character. Gaiman avoids writing Dream.

C 

CREDITS

Sound and Fury; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Mike Dringenberg; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

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