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.

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The Incredible Hulk 39 (June 2002)

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I’m not sure how much more contrived Jones’s setup for the series could be… Maybe if he’d make the Hulk somebody’s dad. But he doesn’t. He makes someone else somebody’s dad.

Once again, Jones doesn’t let Bruce have the issue. One of the bad guys gets the issue and she gets to tell Bruce all about this strange situation he’s found himself in. Of course, if you’re Bruce Banner and you’ve been hulking out for years, strange situations shouldn’t seem strange. But Jones acts like he’s come up with sliced bread.

He hasn’t. He’s come up with a really contrived story and hasn’t taken any time in the issue to do anything else. It’s the last in the arc, the setup for the next one, so not doing anything else would usually be okay. But he hasn’t been doing anything else for issues.

This arc could’ve easily run two issues.

D 

CREDITS

Tag… You’re Dead!; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 38 (May 2002)

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So what have we got here? What are Jones and Romita serving this issue? Sorry, it takes place in a roadside cafe. I’m just in the spirit.

Jones has bad guys who can come back from the dead and there are apparently more of them than he previously told the reader about. He’s also got Doc Samson borrowing an outfit from the Village People. Romita has nothing. Terrible backgrounds. There’s an action scene but Jones cuts away so who knows how Romita would do with it.

Here’s the problem–there’s nothing with Bruce. Either the bad guys run the issue or Samson runs the issue. Bruce just sits around. Jones writes the character perfectly well–better this issue since he’s not moping about the kid he may or may not have killed–but doesn’t do anything with him. He reacts, never acts.

Everything’s way too convenient to get concerned about.

C 

CREDITS

Last Chance Cafe; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 37 (April 2002)

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This issue is definitely better, but only because Jones takes time to give Samson stuff to do. He hangs out with this bullied kid while Bruce goes hitchhiking and has an adventure. Of course, since things are very convenient, the assassins get caught up in the adventure too.

I just realized how much Bruce looks like Mister X, which sort of points out how lame Romita’s art is for this book. Mister X through the heartland might be cool. But with Romita? Every page is a bore, worse when he’s got to do action.

Jones is way too unfocused–the assassins, Samson, Bruce–and there’s no tension to the issue. There’s no suspense and he’s basically trying to do a suspense story, just one set during the day for whatever reason.

I’m also very confused about Bruce’s laptop and how come he doesn’t know it’s tracking him.

But it’s okay.

C+ 

CREDITS

You Must Remember This…; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 36 (March 2002)

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There’s not a lot of Bruce in this issue. Except when he’s freaking out about the kid dying–only, there’s always something suspect about Hulk casualties. It’s one of those things a writer can’t concentrate too hard on because the logic holes become too obvious. There’s no Hulk, expect on TV.

There’s also a lot of bad art from Romita. Jones introduces two assassins out to get Bruce and then Leonard Samson is on the case. He sticks with them for the majority of the issue, which is too bad. Romita draws all three poorly. At least his Bruce is… consistent.

But Jones hinges the issue on these assassins, on the hunt for Banner picking up, and it’s lame. Bruce’s self-loathing doesn’t work with the nonsense.

There’s some amusing stuff at the beginning with the female assassin. The rest of it isn’t visually dynamic enough to justify the pace.

C- 

CREDITS

The Gang’s All Here!; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 35 (February 2002)

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I both love and dislike this issue. It was one of Marvel’s “’Nuff Said” titles, which actually allows Jones to really concentrate on his pacing. He loves the choppy fast pace.

Sadly, he doesn’t have the artist for it. Romita does much better than I would have expected but the art is still the problem. Especially when the Hulk shows up. It’s supposed to be an awesome sequence but Romita doesn’t break out the action well.

The issue ends happily, abruptly. Given Jones has a lengthy quiet period at the opening, he could have structured it better.

There are threats this issue, but they’re all boring. Jones has a quick plot for no talking, but there’s no room for those threats.

The nicest part is how Jones has just the right amount of pressure on the “Bruce Banner as a nice guy” moments.

It’s successful in spite of the art.

B- 

CREDITS

Silent Running; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 34 (January 2002)

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And here we have Bruce Jones trying to do a very gritty, realistic story and the art just not servicing it. John Romita Jr. does handle a lot of Jones’s cinematic influences okay, but his page design is too simple and his world is way too soft. Romita always safely curves his lines at some point.

The story has Bruce Banner on the run, as usual, and living in a crappy motel in a bad part of town. There’s a little about how close the cops are to catching him, but mostly it’s this story about Banner and a local tough. The kid’s fallen in with a gang, Bruce is trying to convince him to reform.

It’s decent with the Romita art–the issue overall–but the right style would have helped a lot more. Jones tries to focus on the collateral damage but, unfortunately, Romita doesn’t try to agree.

C+ 

CREDITS

The Morning After; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Ultimate Spider-Man 86 (January 2006)

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Maybe not everything should get an Ultimate version.

For example, Bendis opens the issue with Ultimate Damage Control. Does there need to be an Ultimate Damage Control… probably not. But Bendis uses it for exposition and to frame his flashback. It’s okay enough.

Except the arc’s not about them, it’s about Ultimate Silver Sable, who’s apparently a corporate espionage person. Does she need an Ultimate version? Hard to say, but definitely not the way Bendis writes this issue.

She has all these morons working for her (the Wild Pack, I think) and Bendis is clearly enjoying writing their dialogue… but it’s all for a useless comic. He’s impressing himself again, which never goes well for the series.

The twist at the end, which should be played for laughs, ends up being vicious. The arc’s a misfire so far.

And the Ultimate Vision backup? Pointless but inoffensive writing; truly hideous art.

CREDITS

Silver Sable, Part One; writer, Brian Michael Bendis; penciller, Mark Bagley; inker, Scott Hanna; colorist, Justin Ponsor. Ultimate Vision, Visions, Part One of Six; writer, Mark Millar; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Jimmy Palmiotti; colorist, Jonathan D. Smith. Letterer, Chris Eliopoulos; editors, John Barber, Nicole Wiley and Ralph Macchio; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Uncanny X-Men 203 (March 1986)

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I’m banging my head against the wall trying to figure out this question–how the heck did Uncanny X-Men sell? I mean, Claremont’s writing is the wordiest drivel I think I’ve ever read in a mainstream comic book, possibly because he refuses to shut up. He writes on and on in his exposition, on and on in his declarative dialogue. It’s just endless.

Unfortunately, the Beyonder doesn’t kill all of the X-Men this issue and I really, really, really wish he had. They’re all obnoxious and whiney. Only Storm comes across as less that a complete twit and only by a hair. Everyone else spends the issue having personal revelation after revelation.

I always mocked X-Men comics without having read them. Having now done so, I just feel sorry for myself. These fifteen minutes are never coming back.

And apparently Romita Jr. could never draw. Art’s awful.

CREDITS

Crossroads; writer, Chris Claremont; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Al Williamson; colorist, Glynis Oliver; letterer, Tom Orzechowski; editors, Terry Kavanagh and Ann Nocenti; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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