REVIEW: Batman #23

Hey, I’m nothing if I’m not topical!  This hot-off-the-presses review comes over a month late.  I’ve started to write it a couple of times, only to change my mind and disregard it, wary that it would be a long rant, and one not many would likely be inclined to read.  Now, several weeks have passed since the release of Batman #23, third chapter of the “Zero Year” saga currently dominating the title, and I’ve now read the comic three times, mulling over what I want to say and how I want to say it.  Well, if you’re reading this, it means this attempt at formulating an opinion is the one I actually finished.  A warning, at the start it’s going to feel like a bit of a downer, but hopefully it’ll end on a positive note!

But first, the downer bit: I hated “Zero Year” from the moment I first heard about it.  Seriously, it was a sea-change moment.  From very early on, Batman was easily my favourite comic in DC’s New 52.  I wrote many a gushing, in-depth review of “The Court of Owls”, a comic which has already earned its place in the canon of all-time great Batman stories.  And “Death of the Family” was fantastic, a horror-tinged approach to my favourite villain, The Joker, as he embarked on a suitably chilling masterplan.  After those two epics, I was waiting with baited breath for the announcement of the next big story coming from the Snyder/Capullo dream team.  But when that announcement turned out to be “Zero Year”… my heart sank.  And for the first time I found myself seriously questioning the creative direction of a title I’d loved so vocally since its inception.

My hatred for the very idea of “Zero Year” is twofold.  First, I hate it on a practical level, where I feel like Batman has set up so many intriguing issues in the present I’m keen for them to develop – the breakdown of the Bat-family in the wake of The Joker’s mindgames, where things are going with Harper Row – that to suddenly go, “Hey guys, we’re just going to take a break from our A-story for a FULL YEAR and go on a jaunt through the past,” it felt like a crippling halt in forward momentum.  And given how thoroughly Batman’s early years have already been covered in ironclad classics such as Year One and The Long Halloween, retreading Batman’s early days felt painfully redundant and unnecessary, especially when 11 issues of the primary Bat-title were being used to do it: Year One did a perfectly respectable job of telling Batman’s origin with 4 issues.

The second reason for my hatred was a lot more nebulous and irrational, but no less pressing: the emotional fanboy kneejerk aversion.  The continuity-hound in me has found more and more frustrations with the tinkering of the New 52, but I could comfort myself in the knowledge that Batman was largely untouched.  “No one is going to touch Year One,” I could whisper reassuringly to myself in the night, “Scott Snyder said so himself in all those interviews!”  And I’m sure Snyder meant it when he said it, but circumstances change, and as plot holes open up they need to be closed in some manner or other, so I don’t blame the guy for rolling with the punches.  But as a passionate fan of stories that were now being rendered out-of-canon, I was gutted.  Just after Grant Morrison has spent years crafting a wonderful vision of Batman where everything that ever happened to him in the comics happened, and it was all important in informing his character, I hated the idea of the New 52 making giving us a new version where nothing that ever happened to him in the comics happened, and none of it is important in informing his character.

So here I was, in danger of becoming the very kind of “hater” I can’t stand.  If there was one reason I didn’t immediately drop the title, it’s the creative team.  The superstar pairing of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have, for my money, positioned themselves right up there alongside the likes of Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams, Doug Moench/Jim Aparo and Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale as one of the all-time great Batman creative teams, and so had more than earned the benefit of the doubt to at least give “Zero Year” a try.  And it was that rich bedrock of accumulated goodwill that got me through the first two chapters.  I was torn: Snyder and Capullo continued to excel themselves, with Capullo in particular doing some of his most jawdropping, ambitious work ever.  I’d marvel at the meticulous, beautiful construction of pages, or find myself smiling at the deft skill with which Snyder weaved in a character grace note or an unexpected turn in the narrative.  But still, for me it felt like one of the best creative teams working today magnificently executing a story I had no interest in reading.  And so, Batman #23 was the last chance I was giving the story to win me over.  Dropping Batman was unthinkable.  But I was at the very least considering taking a break for the “Zero Year” storyline and coming back once it was over.

Okay, so after near 1000 words of doom-and-gloom preamble, let’s get into the actual review of the comic itself, and this is where the negative turns positive.  As it was with this third chapter that everything clicked for me.  After being unable to see past the redundancy of retelling this origin story, it’s with this issue that I realise “Zero Year” has, in one way at least, managed to trump the mighty Batman Year One.  For, while that is an incredible Jim Gordon story, “Zero Year” has spent the first three issues carefully setting the stage for this to be a definitive Bruce Wayne story in a way that even Year One – which kept Wayne himself relatively elusive – couldn’t do.  James Tynion IV and Rafael Albuquerque’s backups hav be served their role here too, giving us glimpses at the ways Bruce has moulded himself physically.  But it falls to Snyder and Capullo to complete the metamorphosis, and show how a Bruce Wayne with all the individual component parts puts it all together to become the Batman we know and love.

The first two issues were careful place-setting, establishing Bruce Wayne himself and finding new wrinkles in his history – the thorny relationship with Alfred, the return of his Uncle, Philip Wayne – to establish him as a vital presence in the comic even before he dons the cowl, the way Nolan did with Christian Bale in Batman Begins.  But it’s with Batman #23 that it all pays off, the whole issue serving as an ode to Bruce, and a showcase for the final intangible qualities that will make him Batman: determination, resilience, and a touch of madness.  Escaping from a burning building and trekking across a city to Wayne Manor, after getting the hell beaten out of you, with two bullets in your gut, is an incredible feat, and Capullo really sells the struggle with his visuals: lots of tight, bonecrunching impact shots during the confrontation with the Red Hood, and lots of ominous long shots and aerial shots to really hammer home the sense of distance and isolation to make sure you feel every pained step Bruce takes.  And then there’s that crazy finale, an inspired new interpretation of the iconic, “Yes father, I shall become a bat” moment.  We’re all waiting for that line, we all know it’s coming.  But the build-up to it is bold and transformative, presented as the wild, psychadelic fever dream of a man suffering from a concussion.  Batman becomes something nightmarish, borne out of a place no level-headed man would go to.

Really, it’s G: reg Capullo who’s the dominant presence here.  With more of those immersive layouts and stunning splashes, you really get the feeling of Capullo pushing the envelope further and further, cementing his status as an auteur of comic art.  It’s not just the grand flourishes: it’s the little touches, like the way we can see the iconography of Batman gradually forming around Bruce.  There’s the fact that Wayne Towers looks like the silhouette of Batman, as has already been noted elsewhere.  And there’s also the closing silent image from when Alfred’s done patching Bruce up and Bruce is walking away, with his sweeping dressing gown looking eerily like Batman’s cape.  That page also gives us what could be the first glimpse of Batman’s naked butt, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Of course, I’ve always loved Capullo’s work on the book, but as I reread Batman #23, I found myself wondering what it was that was making his work have more impact on me than ever, to the point where I was thinking this could be his finest work on the title yet.  And then it hit me: the famed Batman first-person narration captions were nowhere to be found.  We’ve become so used to seeing those in Batman comics, that even when their absence isn’t immediately noted, it creates a very different vibe.  Especially when the missing narration would have been provided by a wordsmith as eloquent as Snyder.  With no such captions, a wealth of the captions here are silent, and it is Capullo who really shoulders the bulk of the storytelling.  And he more than rises to the challenge, giving us a visual narrative masterclass where every page is both a work of remarkable aesthetic beauty in itself and dense in narrative in a way that rewards multiple readings.

How do the rest of the art team perform in assisting Capullo here?  Very well, I’d say.  I’ve had a hard time warming to inker Danny Miki.  This is through no shortcomings of his, as his light touch has given the characters renewed spark and kinetic energy that makes them pop from the page.  But I can’t deny that I’ve missed Jonathan Glapion, who inked Greg Capullo’s pencils from Batman #1 right up to the “Death of the Family” conclusion.  So much of the ominous, horror-infused tone of the series came from Glapion’s rich, heavy linework and heavy blacks, giving everything this sense of weight and dread, picking up on and enhancing the odder, more uneasy aspects of Capullo’s stylised figure work.  But here, Danny Miki shifts from his more polished approach to apply some oddness of his own, with Capullo giving him more of an opportunity to relish in the gloomy and astmospheric than he’s had since joining the team.

And colorist FCO Plascencia continues to be one  of the most underappreciated geniuses working in comics.  I’ve been pleased to see colorists getting more acknowledgement of late, but Plascencia’s name has rarely been brought up in the conversations about what colorists bring to a book.  It should be, as from the very beginning, Plascencia’s skillfully-applied pallette has given the book an aesthetic all its own.  He’s not a flat colorist.  Everything he colors feels textured, like it has mass and depth.  I think he handles skin particularly well, in a way that has really helped Capullo’s distinctive faces leap from the page.  Here, Plascencia gets a big-time showcase, as he establishes a color scheme for each of the two narrative strands running through the book.  In the attack on Bruce’s penthouse apartment, it all feels very hot: lots of oranges, yellows, and red (The Red Hood, the recurring imagery of pooling blood), and as the fire blazes Plascencia bathes the characters in a swelteringly convincing depiction of the heat.  In the aftermath, both as Bruce struggles his way back to Wayne Manor and dwells in the mansion afterwards, Plascencia goes cold: lots of blues and grays.  As the book jumps back and forth from one strand to the other, often on the same page, the colors become a shorthand for not only the change in scene, but for Bruce himself.  Gotham and its criminal element are red: panic, terror, chaos and Bruce is in danger of being consumed by it.  Bruce Wayne is blue: calm, cool. a force of order to rise against the chaos.  And the first image of the book is a young, blue-tinged Bruce set against a blood-red circle.

Of course, I feel obligated to point out that Scott Snyder has hardly taken a vacation and left the artists to do all the heavy lifting.  He too has a place to shine, and for him it’s in the showcases given to our two villains.  First, The Red Hood, who at this point we are to assume is a prototypical Joker.  He is granted a great monologue about how the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne shaped him as much as it did Bruce: “Because at the end of day (I think that should be end of the day, but it would appear letterer Nick Napolitano made a typo), what people are afraid of is the nothing of it, Bruce.  The randomness. The empty center.  Stare into it and try to find meaning.  You’ll go mad.  All you can do is fear, and survive.”  Even now that his run is done, it would appear that Grant Morrison’s “hole in things” continues to haunt the Batman mythos.

Later on we get another delightful scene with Edward Nygma, who has been a standout character throughout this storyline thus far.  Between this, and the fantastic Riddler Villains’ Month oneshot from last week, The Riddler is emerging as one of my favourite characters in the New 52 Batverse.  Here, we get our first glimpse at vulnerability from the ice-cool master planner, as Philip Wayne taunts him with his one weakness: that because of his shady, undisclosed past, he must always operate under his alias, and so he can never truly take the credit for his works of genius.  With both The Red Hood and Edward Nygma, we get this great sense of them being primal ideas waiting to be born: the ingredients for The Joker and The Riddler are in there, but they need that spark of Batman coming into existence for the touch-paper to light and for them to emerge from the dark in response.

So, where does all that leave us?  I had my misgivings about “Zero Year”, and to a degree I still do.  But this underlines the power of a fantastic creative team firing on all cylinders.  It’s almost easy to make a great comic out of a surefire, can’t-miss high concept.  But to take something as contentious and divisive as this, and make something incredible out of it?  That’s an achievement.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are absolute MVPs that DC should be doing everything in their power to keep on Batman forever, with the freedom to tell whatever stories with Batman they want.  Will the next chapter build on this momentum, and will “Zero Year” as a whole emerge as a resounding success that can stand proudly alongside Year One without appearing sorely lacking in comparison?  Or in the end will Batman #23 prove to be a stunning single artefact in an unremarkable larger narrative?  I’m not sure, but Batman #23 sealed the deal for me, and made sure I’m onboard to the end to see for myself.  I’m glad I gave these guys the benefit of the doubt.

Batman23Batman #23 is out in comic shops now.

REVIEW: Batman #14

REVIEW: Batman #14

You may have noticed that I haven’t reviewed Batman in a while.  To be honest, there’s only so much hyperbole you can heap on a title that is so consistently excellent, and it’s pretty difficult to find new ways of saying how incredible the work Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and the rest of the creative team are doing has been.  But just when we may have felt that this title may have hit a plateau of dependable quality each passing month, this “Death of the Family” arc started with Batman #13 and blasted the roof off our already high expectations.  With that issue, Snyder brought The Joker back in style and restored him as a genuinely terrifying presence.  That chapter caused something of a sensation, selling out everywhere very quickly and perhaps leaving some wondering if subsequent installments could possibly maintain that dizzying level of tension and mastery of storytelling.

Now we have Batman #14, and not onlydoes it live up to the horrific promise of Batman #13, it’s actually better, challenging even the mighty Batman #5 as perhaps the best chapter of this already-classic run.

Here’s the thing about The Joker.  Yes, undoubtedly, he’s a beloved, revered villain, and it’s not like he hasn’t been treated with respect in recent years: Grant Morrison and Paul Dini have given us some cracking Joker tales in the past decade.  But it seems that, more often than not, for quite a while now when The Joker has shown up in a major storyline, it’s been to act as a spoiler, a spanner in the works that complicates things between Batman and the primary antagonist of the story.  It seems like it’s been ages since The Joker has taken centre-stage in an epic arc of his own.  Well, The Joker’s time is now, and one of the best things Snyder does this issue is hammer home just how serious a threat The Joker is, what sets him apart from your typical street-level psycho supervillain, and the frightening scale on which he can operate.  Some might have been dubious about all the Bat-family “Death of the Family” tie-ins, but based on the strength of his portrayal here, you can totally understand how The Joker could be a threat big enough for all these characters to have their hands full with him, and indeed it would feel like something was deeply wrong if the ripples of the shocking revelations in Batman weren’t felt in the rest of the Bat-line.

As far as the actual characterisation of The Joker goes, Scott Snyder clearly has a ball writing the master villain.  While he doesn’t by any means show his whole hand at this early stage of what is sure to be a labyrinthine plot, Snyder does give us a substantial taste of The Joker’s modus operandi, how he views his place in the universe and why he’s doing what he’s doing.  It’s stuff we’ve heard before, as Snyder has enthralled us with his insights into The Joker in various interviews and panel appearances, but seeing those fascinatingly acute observations worked into the script and spoken back out to us in The Joker’s voice makes it still feel fresh and exciting.  The Joker has been given a rythmn of speaking unlike anyone else in the cast: with all his talk of being the court jester to Batman’s “god-king”, his manner of speaking almost feels like that of a Shakespearean fool, all tantalising double meanings, coy foreshadowings and escalating repetitions.  In the silent medium of comics, Snyder has crafted a cadence for his villain’s voice, which is no mean feat.  Letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt also deserve credit here, with The Joker even getting his own lettering font to heighten this sense of him having his own unique voice.

The unconventional, unsettling nature of The Joker’s presence is compounded by Greg Capullo’s art.  His body language is all uncomfortable backwards arches and unnatural contortions, Capullo’s Joker cutting a shifting, fidgity figure.  Even in how he stands, The Joker is set apart from everyone else on the page.  Though Capullo’s most obvious contribution is surely The Joker’s new face.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t a fan of the idea of The Joker wearing his severed face like a mask.  It seemed a bit too torture-porn gorefest, a bit too grubby and heavy-handed for a villain as classy as The Clown Prince of Crime.  But Capullo makes it work, with The Joker’s loose, flaccid face-skin wrinkling and folding into slightly different positions in each passing panel.  Much like the nature of The Joker’s masterplan, it allows The Joker to be simultaneously familiar, and yet inherently, chillingly different.  And while I’m talking about Capullo’s art, how can I not mention that stunning splash page with The Joker and Batman facing each other on the bridge.  If there was a comic page I immediately wanted to have on my wall…

But as great as all this juicy material with my favourite comic book villain was, it wasn’t what made Batman #14 possibly the best of the series thus far.  When he shows up, he’s utterly compelling, but The Joker doesn’t show up until 15 pages into the story.  I was expecting great characterisation of The Joker here.  What took me by surprise is how great a character study of Batman this is.  Seeing Batman starting to come apart at the seams with the abduction of Alfred is quite harrowing to watch.  And, as has become something of a recurring trend in Snyder’s run, Batman is able to reveal most of his inner turmoil while in conversation with Nightwing.  Batman struggling to compartmentalise, referring to Bruce Wayne in the first person and Alfred as “Pennyworth” – as if he was someone else’s butler, and didn’t know him personally – and Nightwing’s exasperation with Batman’s enforced detachment, was just some great character dynamics.

And when Batman finally lets the mask slip, I found it really powerful when he talked about Alfred being a father to him.  I’m glad Snyder went there, and hope he makes more of that in future.  To me, that’s been one of the great, unspoken tragedies of the Batman mythos.  Bruce Wayne has been driven his whole life by this need to avenge the death of his parents, and goes through such prolonged anguish over how he’s an orphan, over how he has no father.  And all this time, while living in this almost self-indulgent misery, he’s been quietly cared for by a man who is arguably more of a father to Bruce than his actual biological father ever was, who certainly at the very least has been caring for Bruce longer than his real father did.  Poor Alfred.

The back-up, with art by Jock, is also a treat.  We see The Joker interacting with The Penguin, two very different villains who, according to The Joker, at least, each have their own crucial role in the Gotham tapestry.  With the ominous note this short interlude ends on, combined with the bombshells dropped at the conclusion of the main story, that brings us to one of the most exciting aspects of this bar-raising issue: that it’s still mostly set up for things to get even crazier in future chapters!

Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion, colorist FCO Plascencia and letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt are arguably the best creative team working in comics today (off the top of my head, only the Brian K Vaughan/Fiona Staples/Fonografiks dream team on Saga jumps to mind as a possible challenger for that crown), and so you’d think it could be easy to just take their combined excellence for granted.  But just like Batman has had the rug pulled out from under him just when he thinks he knows what to expect from The Joker, with “Death of the Family”, these guys just refuse to let us get comfortable with our expectations.  Sometimes, with big stories like this, it’s like going from point A to point B, with point B already solicited well in advance, and so it’s just a case of sitting back and watching how it happens.  Not the case here.  This story has driven off a cliff.  We have a monthly Big Two superhero comic that feels genuinely dangerous, a Batman story with a sense of bona fide “anything could happen and I don’t know how things can ever be normal again!” drama not felt since Batman RIP.

Batman #14 is out now in comic stores everywhere.

REVIEW: Batman #9

The cover of Batman #9 says a lot.  It’s a reverse of the cover for Batman #4, where the Talon’s head loomed menacingly over the Gotham City skyline, Batman reflected in his goggles.  That image aptly reflected the power dynamic within the issue, with Batman vulnerable, the object of a predator’s gaze.  Here, that dynamic is reversed, both on the cover and in the issue.  We see Batman’s armour now hovering over Wayne Manor, with the cluster of Talons reflected in its visor.  Now, Batman is the predator, and the Court of Owls is his prey.

Snyder delivers a fun, action-packed issue, but as we approach the climax of this storyline, I can’t help but feel that it’s not quite so gripping as the buildup, and that this shifting dynamic could be the reason.  This is soething of a recurring problem in the comics world, and Batman in particular it would seem, given the high volume of quality work surrounding the character.  In the early stages of the story, we are introduced to a seemingly unbeatable threat, and there’s a real air of menace, a sense of legitimate threat to Batman, that this is an enemy he cannot defeat.  We’re drawn in, and think we’re in a bleak noir/crime epic, or even a horror story.  And we almost forget that it’s a superhero story.  But of course, at the end of the day Batman still is a superhero, and that’s a big part of why we love him.  So of course, once we get to the end, that unstoppable, chilling foe ends up as just another villain to be battled and defeated, as the superhero mechanics start to kick in on the narrative.  This largely unavoidable plot beat has proved troublesome for other Batman stories in the past: the mostly excellent City of Crime springs to mind.  Grant Morrison escaped the pitfall by emphasizing it at the climax of Batman RIP and giving us a comeback/”I was just letting you think you’d beat me” switcheroo of epic proportions, and celebrating just how badass and unstoppable Batman is.  And perhaps that was a problem built into the very concept of the Court of Owls: that they followed the Black Glove, and ultimately Batman saw those guys off with little bother.

As I’ve said before, though, something that gave the Court of Owls that added layer of dread beyond the Black Glove was that they weren’t dastardly outsiders come to attack Gotham, they are Gotham.  But though they still make for compelling villains, Snyder does not seem to have been able to subvert that recurring dynamic, not yet at least.  The Talon was creepy when he was a silent mystery figure, stalking from the shadows and bafflingly unkillable.  And the Court of Owls thesmelves were even more unsettling, in that they were intangible, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  So, when the Talon gives way to an army of Talons, fought and dispatched with relative ease, their nature scientifically explained and exploited as a weakness?  Or when the Court of Owls is reduced to a piece of paper with a list of names, presumably of corrupt officials at a secret lair waiting to be uncovered by Batman?  It makes them knowable, and therefore less frightening.  It’s a problem that often crops up in horror sequels.  Now they’re just villains to be fought and defeated.

However, having said all that, do we really want it any other way?  The appeal of “Batman in grave danger with no hope of escape” followed by “Batman finds a way to overcome adversity and beat the bad guys” has been built into the character as far back as the old Adam West TV series and its “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel” cliffhangers.  Batman’s been put through the wringer in this arc, and now that he gets to turn the tables on the Court of Owls, that’s quite cathartic.  And seeing how even the most seemingly formidable foes are no match for Batman in the end, well, that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?  After all, as Bruce Wayne said long ago, and has been proven right time and time again, “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.”

I’ve done my critique of genre narrative conventions largely outwith Snyder’s control, but in the actual execution of the issue itself, Snyder’s storytelling was as pristine as ever.  I loved the thematically appropriate narration about the incredible durability of bats when their habitat is invaded by owls, and there are a couple of nice beats, including the shock twist that Lincoln March is actually the nice guy he appears to be rather than a shock twist baddie.  But ultimately, this issue is a showcase for the artists.

Greg Capullo has garnered a lot of praise for his dark, atmospheric, character-driven work on Batman thus far, but here he gets to cut loose with some of the most high-octane action I’ve seen portrayed in a comic in a good while.  From the epic splash of the Batcave’s dinosaur finally revealing its purpose, to smaller moments like the Talon’s blade piercing the visor of Batman’s armour and almost poking out his eye, this is an issue crammed with incident, and Capullo frames everything in a way that it feels frantic and intense, but at the same time every little moment is clearly portrayed, nothing is muddy or inprecise.  And mention should also be made of the inker/colorist pairing of Jonathan Glapion and FCO Plascencia, who do an impressive job of having night gradually give way to morning over the course of the issue’s latter half.  Though we never see the actual sunrise itself, the light it casts on Batman – normally shrouded in shadow and night – makes for quite the potent closing image.

But perhaps what excited me the most this issue was that Rafael Albuquerque – Snyder’s artistic collaborator on American Vampire – was coming onboard to work on the backup feature, “The Fall of the House of Wayne.”  I don’t know what to make of the story itself – co-written by James Tynion IV – as while it was well-scripted, it raised a couple of ropey continuity questions that the geek in me has to ponder further.  The art, however, is stunning, as we have come to expect from Albuquerque, who in my mind is reaching that “comic art rock star” status.  Even American Vampire colorist Dave McCaig is along for the ride, and together they give us some moody, atmospheric work recalling the visual splendour that first made me fall in love with American Vampire.

Any complaints I have about Batman #9 are slight, and probably stm more from me reading too many comics than any substantial forthcomings of the actual creative talent involved.  But still, I didn’t enjoy this quite so much as the best issues of this run thus far.  But I’m still hoping that Snyder, Capullo and co blow us away with the finale.

REVIEW: Swamp Thing #7

At this stage, I imagine it goes without saying that Swamp Thing #7 features the long-awaited return of the title character.  I mean, it’s on the cover.  So, most of us knew going in that this latest instalment of Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s New 52 relaunch would give us the much-delayed moment that even those who have thought the book to be otherwise perfect have been clamouring for, and for that it was always going to rate highly.  Buth both Snyder and Paquette do more than simply give the readers what they want.  That happens too, of course, but Swamp Thing #7 manages to exceed even lofty expectations and emerge as a truly stunning comic, possibly the best in the series so far.

Over the course of what is basically a single extended scene, Scott Snyder condenses the key themes and ideas that have been explored over the preceding 6 issues into a single chapter that will serve as both a pivotal turning point in the larger narrative, and a mission statement for Snyder’s whole interpretation of the Swamp Thing mythos.  Snyder’s Swamp Thing is a story of choice VS destiny, and you could make a case for both claiming victory here.  Since the relaunch, we’ve been told that becoming Swamp Thing has always been Alec Holland’s destiny, and that his attempts to escape this fate were futile, and here, indeed, the prophecy is fulfilled.  But we also see that, this time round, Alec Holland is not a victim of fate, but rather an active participant in his own transformation.  And as Abigail Arcane battles against her own transformation, it becomes apparent that this choice VS destiny theme will continue to play out as the story enters its next phase.

On the subject of Abigail, one of the other key themes of the series is love, and its ability to overcome impossible odds.  Alan Moore’s seminal run on Swamp Thing was, at its core, a love story, and I’m glad this element has been maintained.  While Moore set up obstacles of distance between Swamp Thing and Abby, first sending Swamp Thing on missions around the world and then sending him to the far reaches of the universe – with the goal of being reunited with his love always what drove him – Snyder’s obstacle is more abstract, but arguably much harder to overcome.  Just as Alec Holland is the avatar of life, Abigail Arcane has been summoned as the avatar of death.  The two are sworn enemies, and have always meant to be so.  We get ominous glimpses of the monstrous creature Abigail is becoming throughout this issue, foreshadowing the heartbreaking conflict that lies ahead.  But even so, it is still Abigail that Swamp Thing is fighting for, still that desire to be reunited with her that drives him.  “I’m doing it for her,” are his final words as a human.

The motif of death and rebirth – and how the two are linked – is also given enhanced attention here, obvious even from that beautiful front cover.  How much do the designs surrounding Swamp Thing remind you of a butterfly?  In the issue itself, Alec Holland’s body (and indeed, Abigail Arcane’s body also) is housed in a cocoon while his transformation takes place.  In the previous issues we’ve seen much of the encroach of death and decay, but the final image of this issue is that of flowers blooming: from death springs life.  In his argument with the dying Parliament of Trees, Holland suggests that The Green is not too different from The Rot.  Life and death may be in constant struggle, but they complement one another.

I’ve said all this, without even getting into Yanick Paquette’s astounding artwork.  It’s interesting how, even when talented artists fill in for him, Paquette’s return to the book after an issue’s absence always feels like an act of triumphant restoration.  This is how Swamp Thing is supposed to look.  But Paquette pushes his invention to a whole new level this issue, with every page becoming a jawdropping, meticulously-crafted tableau.  Traditional panel borders are abandoned altogether in favor of lush vines and floral patterns doing battle with the black, splotchy chaos of The Rot.  The images themselves are surprisingly packed with detail, demanding to be lingered over, savoured.

Though the whole issue is gorgeous, undeniably the standout visual sequence is the aforementioned transformation.  In a collection of wince-inducing extreme close-ups, we see various parts of Alec Holland’s body – inside and out – being converted by The Green, the images getting smaller and more tightly packed as the transformation picks up pace.  And then it all culminates in a pageturn reveal that is sure to become an instantly iconic image.  Though the experimental tableaus Paquette has liberally employed throughout the book often feel like splash pages, in this instance here when he actually uses a full page splash, the impact is like a gut-punch.

It’s also worth emphasizing again how much the rich, vibrant colors of Nathan Fairbairn enhance Paquette’s artwork.  In Holland’s dialogue with the Parliament of Trees, the deep shades of green and orange make the pages feel like they are teeming with life.  And on the flipside, our glimpses of the Kingdom of Bones become laced with an almost tangible pestilence, that richness of tone turning sickly sweet when shifting to a palette of reds and yellows.  Snyder and Paquette have been showered with much well-deserved praise, but Fairbairn just might be the unsung hero of Swamp Thing.

This is a title that has ranked near the top of DC’s output since the month of its debut, but with Swamp Thing #7, the creative team raise their game.  This feels like a culmination of all that has been brewing in the series over the past six months.  But more than that, it makes those excellent first 6 chapters feel like little more than a prelude, suggesting that the stage has been set for a truly epic saga to unfold.  Swamp Thing truly is back.

REVIEW: Swamp Thing #6

Oops, I’ve been getting a bit behind on reviewing Swamp Thing, haven’t I?  The last issue I reviewed was #3, but I’ve still been reading and the comic has still been excellent in those intervening months.  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?  When you’ve said a comic is amazing, 10/10, one of the best on the shelves right now, writing is great, art is great… what else do you say?

Let’s start by dealing with the elephant in the room.  No, Yanick Paquette did not draw this issue, though he did provide the cover, one of the most beautiful to grace this series yet.  In his place is Marco Rudy.  We’ll get it out of the way: no, Marco Rudy’s art is not as stunning as Yanick Paquette.  But Rudy is a very gifted artist in his own right, and makes a game attempt at crafting some adventurous, intricate panel layouts reminiscent of what has quickly become a Paquette trademark.  And he gets some great stuff to work with.  Bodies being sucked into tumorous flesh pits and transformed into Gigeresque monstrosities, warped mutant vultures, towers built from corpses, and young William Arcane apparently rotting gradually from the inside.

But while it looks good, it still feels different, which is a shame, as Swamp Thing has very quickly established a distinct aesthetic.  Part of the problem could be that Marco Rudy’s admirable efforts to channel the spirit of Paquette in his work are somewhat undermined by the loss of colorist Nathan Fairbairn.  Fairbairn’s rich, textured colors masterfully made the transition between Paquette and fill-in artist Victor Ibanez all but seamless in Swamp Thing #3.  But the sharper colors of Val Staples and Lee Loughridge make the change more jarring on this occasion.

Thankfully, one thing that remains utterly consistent is the writing of Scott Snyder.  In fact, this could be one of the strongest-written issues of the series thus far.  It’s impressive that, in a title called Swamp Thing, Snyder has now held off on actually giving us Swamp Thing for six months.  Back in my review of issue #3, I talked about getting a little antsy, wondering how long they could keep this up.  As it turns out, it was the right decision.  By putting the time into firmly establishing Alec Holland, Snyder has ensured I have connected with the character of Alec as a human being, which I’m sure will be an invaluable tether once he turns into that familiar big, green plant-monster and starts smashing stuff up.  His arc takes a really interesting direction this issue.  Before, I talked about Alec Holland coming across as a Jonah figure, shirking his duties.  Here, we get a particularly powerful moment, with Alec wading into the swamp, begging to be made into Swamp Thing again, finally accepting his destiny… only now its too late.

Particularly strong is the depiction of the relationship between Alec and Abby Arcane.  Alan Moore’s overarching saga was ultimately a love story, arguably one of the greatest love stories in comic history.  And I’m glad that remains at the core of the book now, with an added “star-crossed” element to it that makes it all the more poignant and bittersweet.  It should be fascinating to see what twists their journey takes in the issues to come, with Abby possibly being reinvented as a dangerous threat, as vital to the Rot as Alec is to the Green.

On this note, the foreshadowing of this idea was handled brilliantly in the monologue by William Arcane.  I was a bit dubious about a little kid being able to deliver so eloquent an evil speech, but he’s a demon child, so I’ll roll with it.  This sequence once again worked in Snyder’s talent for being able to approach obscure trivia at a terrifying angle.  And the imagery juxtaposed with it was suitably grim.  Swamp Thing started out with a strong horror vibe, but as the narrative has carried on, we’ve just been dragged deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.  As it stands, the situation looks impossibly bleak for our protagonist.  And that’s before that last page…

DC has ensured that the first Wednesday of the month is always a treat for me, with the one-two punch of Swamp Thing and Animal Man ensuring quality reading.  I felt a little premature heaping hyperbole on Swamp Thing in its first couple of issues, but we’ve now accumulated nearly a trade’s worth of material – I believe next month’s Swamp Thing #7 will be the last chapter of the first collected edition – so I can now say with confidence that Snyder and his artistic collaborators are giving us the best Swamp Thing story since the Moore era, and a tale that can stand respectably alongside Moore’s masterpiece.

 

REVIEW: Batman #5

It goes without saying that Batman #5 is the best issue yet of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on the comic.  I must look like a total pushover with a reviewer, as I started with gushing praise for Batman #1, and have had to stretch to new heights of hyperbole for each subsequent instalment.  But more than that, Batman #5 is in my opinion the best comic from any title to be released by DC since the relaunch, and could very well be one of the best single issues of a Batman story I’ve ever read as a new-release floppy.  This is the comic I’d hand to people, not just to win them over on trying the relaunched Batman series, but to comic fans who think stories with major superheroes like Batman can’t match creator-owned or indie titles for creativity and ambition, or even to comic cynics who think Batman is just for kids.  In short, Batman #5 blew me away.

To offer a catch-up on the plot, last issue ended with Batman’s investigation into the Court of Owls – a shady organisation that could be tied into the very fabric of Gotham since the earliest days of its history – leading him to the sewers of Gotham, where he was ambushed by the Talon (the Court’s mysterious assassin) and dropped into an underground labyrinth.  As we begin this issue, Batman has been trapped in said labyrinth for over a week, with no food and only water that is probably drugged for him to drink, with no escape in sight.  And he’s starting to lose his mind.

In my review for issue #4, I talked a little about how Capullo’s art was showing touches of horror amidst the classic superhero action.  Well, here, we’re taken right over the edge of that cliff, as Snyder gives us a story that is pure horror, arguably scarier than anything he’s written for Swamp Thing or American Vampire.  Snyder has talked about horrors such as Jacob’s Ladder and The Shining acting as inspirations for this issue’s script (in particular, there is a truly horrific sequence that owes a lot to the latter’s notorious “Room 217” scene), but what Batman’s twisted journey through the labyrinth most reminded me of was the terrifying conclusion to Twin Peaks, the extended sequence with Dale Cooper in the Black Lodge.  “The owls are not what they seem,” indeed.  Both tap into that primal fear, that common nightmare of being lost in a strange place, getting increasingly panicked as every attempt to get out takes you back to where you were before…. and you realise you’re not alone, that’s something’s in there with you, chasing you.

This setup alone would be chilling enough, but I think it’s all the more unsettling in that the victim is as beloved a pop culture icon as Batman.  This is Batman, who can get out of anything with prep time, the ultimate escape artist, who Grant Morrison triumphantly showed us is capable of outwitting the greatest of masterminds and even coming back from apparent death and a journey through time unscathed!  We’ve seen him lured into so many death-traps that it’s old hat, that we see it as little more than a mild inconvenience for him.  Snyder gleefully erodes that notion, letting us see Batman struggle to apply that famous logic to his situation, only for it to slip through his fingers and for him to descend into hysteria.  As the chapter progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Batman is acting like a crazy person.  And it’s upsetting!  Seeing Batman ranting and raving, screaming and sobbing, tearing at his flesh and digging his fingers into the floor… it almost feels like it shouldn’t be allowed.  But by dancing on the fringes of what you can get away with in a mainstream superhero property – capped off with a truly shocking cliffhanger – Snyder has injected a sense of genuine “how’s he gonna get out of this!?” peril into a genre that is too often accused of predictability.

Though the bulk of the issue takes place within the labyrinth, acting as an enthralling character dissection of Batman, we do get brief bookends showing how his absence his affecting the supporting cast.  I enjoyed this glimpse of the wider Batman universe, particularly the use of Robin, capturing Damian’s pomposity, but also showing the vulnerability of a child whose lost his father.

Snyder has claimed that he feels this could be the best comic script he’s ever written, and I might be inclined to agree with him.  For some time now, I’ve come to take Snyder’s name on a book as a guarantee of quality, but here he takes his storytelling to a whole new level, and years from now I imagine people will still be ranking this amongst his best work.  This is Snyder’s “Anatomy Lesson”.

Capullo also ups his game, giving us some of the most innovative, experimental visuals I’ve seen in a comic in quite some time.  As Batman’s mind fractures, and he’s plagued by ever more nightmarish visions, that sense of the very fabric of reality coming apart is enhanced by the artwork.  The pages twist and turn from portrait layout to landscape, and eventually spinning upside down, forcing us to abruptly start reading from right-to-left.  We’re left as dizzy and disoriented as Batman.  And look at how the page layouts steadily dissolve from neat, regimented grids to haywire, crooked little windows crammed into the page.  This is a visual representation of going mad.

I love the way Capullo draws Batman here too.  One small touch – the visor on one side of his mask being broken, exposing his eye – speaks volumes throughout the issue.  Firstly, it’s a humanising factor, showing us the man, the Bruce Wayne behind the Batman mask, the vulnerable human in this situation.  But as the story progresses, that eye gets more dilated, more bloodshot.  When Snyder’s script has Batman’s voiceover announcing that he is in control, that he can defeat this enemy, that wild, frantic eye makes a liar out of him. Capullo also makes creepy physical alterations to Batman.  Subtle at first, with his cape shifting and changing size and shape from panel to panel.  But by the end sequence, we descend from Lynchian horror of the mind to wince-inducing Cronenbergian body horror.  Capullo’s been doing superstar work since issue #1, but issue #5 could be his best showcase yet.

The team of inker Jonathan Glapion and colorist FCO have lots to do as well.  There is a reversed dynamic at work here, where its the darkness that offers safety and shelter, and harsh, blinding light where the horrors await.  And it’s through the efforts of these two that this works so well.  The light really does feel harsh, the colors saturated under it.  Moments like the scene with the minature city really make you appreciate what an atmospheric, textured comic this is.

Batman #5 is a triumph on every level, with the whole creative team delivering astounding work.  If you haven’t been reading Batman, this is where you should jump on, and even if you have no plans of reading Batman monthly, I’d recommend buying this issue in particular, as I imagine it’s going to become a hot commodity before long.  If you have been reading Batman, you should feel vindicated.  I’ve been enjoying this title immensely, and I already said with last issue that it has become my favourite DC book.  And yes, I’m aware it’s been widely critically acclaimed.  But I’ve also seen quite a bit of, “Not quite as good as The Black Mirror, but…” type comments.  This was in positive reviews, and it’s fair enough, as The Black Mirror has already entered the canon of all-time classic Batman stories.

With Batman #5, this story has now topped The Black Mirror.  If Snyder can keep up the quality, we’re looking at another all-time classic.  I’m expecting Batman #6 to finally break this streak of this title constantly outdoing itself, because I genuinely think you can’t top a comic as good as Batman #5.  But all the same, I expect it to be great, and the third week of February can’t come fast enough.

 

REVIEW: Batman #3

As hard as it may be to believe, not everyone is in love with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman.  Those who have been reading my reviews will know I’ve been highly vocal in my praise for the first two issues of the relaunched series, and that I’d rank it as the best of the current Bat-titles, a field that’s actually proven to be pretty competitive.  But I’ve talked to a couple of people who have expressed disappointment, saying that after the dark, psychological tone of Snyder’s Detective Comics run, Batman has felt more like standard blockbuster superhero fare.  Those critics might be more satisfied with the sinister turn the narrative takes in this third chapter.  With the steady build in dread over the course of the issue, Batman #3 is paced a lot like a horror story.

Scott Snyder has been very methodical with his pacing and his plotting, but now the pieces are falling into place and the scope of the threat Batman faces is starting to become apparent.  In my review of the last issue, I talked about how Batman’s utter confidence in his deductive skills and his knowledge of Gotham City was being reframed by Snyder as a kind of hubris, an inability to accept that there could be anything at work in Gotham beyond his understanding.  That very much comes to the fore here, and though we do get an excellent action scene set in an underground railway tunnel, for the most part the challenge to Batman here is a cerebral one, and this is a case that will push his deductive abilities as “the world’s greatest detective” to the limit.

The threat of the Court of Owls is almost entirely off-panel in this issue.  They are built up through insinuation and recollection of old folklore and superstition, rather than a physical presence.  But in spite of this – no, because of it – they are built up to be a terrifying threat.  For now at least, they are intangible, unknowable, and, as a result, unfightable.  Snyder draws once more from his Big Book of Trivia to Make You S**t Yourself to come up with some unsettling facts about owls – they are natural predators of bats, they take the nests of rival birds rather than building their own – that when applied to the context of the story make them seem even more formidable as a foil for Batman.  The closing sequence of the issue really hammers home how omnipresent the Court of Owls are, and how deeply ingrained they are not just to the history of Gotham, but to the Waynes.  And the ranting of Alan Wayne in the flashback to 1922 that opens the issue – “Their nests are all around!  They’re in my home!  My home!” – foreshadows that their influence could soon prove to be even more uncomfortably intimate, and the old nursery rhyme’s warning that, “They watch you at your hearth, they watch you in your bed” could turn out to be eerily accurate.

Indeed, if there’s any small complaint I have with the narrative of Batman #3, it comes with the final page.  At first, I thought the second last page was the end, and that was satisfying.  The revelation of how far-reaching this menace was, and the challenge Batman faced in getting to the bottom of it, ended things on a note of quiet dread that really left me wanting more.  But then I turned the page, and was met with a rushed, cheap cliffhanger that I really don’t think the issue needed.  I can appreciate the reasoning behind it, though, and it wasn’t enough to hurt my overall enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfectly structured instalment of this saga.

Once again, the art of Greg Capullo is stunning.  In fact, this could very well be his finest work on the series thus far.  His work has always been slick and stylish, but here Capullo really starts experimenting with his layouts and angles in a way that makes this a visually dense, rich reading experience.  The inventive layout of having the various Wayne buildings in the Gotham skyline framed inside a guilded owl’s eye was striking, and the transition from what could be a pair of glowing owl eyes in the darkness in 1922 to a pair of train headlights approaching in the present day is one of the best match cuts I’ve seen in a comic in a while.  Perhaps my favorite angle used in a panel comes on page 9, where we get a POV shot of Bruce and Alfred talking in the Batcave from behind Batman’s mask, which has been left sitting on Bruce’s worktable.  We see the pair through the narrow slits of the eye-holes, adding an off-kilter, sinister dimension to the talking heads scene.

These were the standout artistic flourishes on first reading.  But upon repeat reading, it became apparent that there is a real visual motif of watching and observation going on here, and once you become aware of it, it’s everywhere.  There are a couple of instances when people are talking about the Court of Owls, where the angle shifts to an overhead shot that feels eerily like a POV shot from an unseen observer.  And there is a big focus on eyes.  Not just the aformentioned owl eyes, but lots of close-ups on human eyes, and things and people reflected in those eyes.  And once you’ve got eyes in your head, eye-like circles start popping up everywhere!  The shot from the blackness below, looking up through the open manhole cover, the railway tunnel at the bottom of page 4 with the far end looking like a little pupil, the circle honed in on Luka Volk when Batman is using lie detector technology on him, the insignia on the Talon’s blade, Batman silhouetted against the full moon on page 13,  the device Batman uses to cut a hole in the floor on page 14, the giant owl insignia we see looming behind Batman or over his head in the scenes that follow.  It all reminds us of the Talon and his circular, owl-like goggles.  And it enhances this pervasive sense that the Court of Owls are everywhere, always watching.  This is a perfect example of art and writing going hand-in-hand and creating an immersive experience for the reader.

It would be negligent of me to not also continue praising the work being done by inker Jonathan Glapion and colorist FCO.  As I’ve mentioned before, Glapion’s heavy blacks are a major part of this title’s overall aesthetic, and that applies in this issue more than ever.  His sharp lines also serve as the perfect compliment to Capullo’s distinctive style.  Similarly, FCO’s muted color palette – making precise use of earthy browns/oranges and cool blues – gives Batman its own unique feel that sets it apart even from the other Bat-titles.  The whole creative team come together to ensure this is just a great-looking book.

It’s getting hard to review this title on a monthly basis, without just repeating the “it’s great!” hyperbole.  My conclusion for this issue is the same as it was for the last one, and I imagine next month I’ll be saying the same thing: Batman #3 is the best issue yet, building on what came before and steadily ratcheting up the tension.  It’s so rewarding when a comic doesn’t just coast on the power of the title character’s brand name.  The writing is striving to provide fresh insight into Batman’s character, while the art is innovative and charged with a desire to explore new and exciting possibilities the comic medium makes available.  This is comics done right.

REVIEW: Swamp Thing #3

Anyone who follows my reviews/talks to me for more than five minutes will know that I absolutely love Swamp Thing, and that I’d mark it out as the single best title of DC’s relaunch.  Issues #1 and #2 were 10/10 comics, and the best new releases of their respective months.  After issue #1 set the stage and provided a startling debut that was laced with menace, issue #2 took things to another level with a dense narrative that added a whole new layer of complexity to the Swamp Thing mythos.  The standard has been set dizzyingly high, and with that my expectations.  Would Swamp Thing #3 continue the escalation, and would the series somehow manage to top itself again?

The way it works out, the narrative here is a little more subdued.  After the revelations came thick and fast in the previous chapter, here we don’t actually spend that much panel time with Alec Holland and Abigail Arcane, now reinvented as star-crossed lovers destined to be enemies.  I’ll admit, with the cover to this issue (and the thematically loaded image of Abby blasting Swamp Thing’s heart out of his chest) I was expecting an in-depth exploration of the pair’s storied history – in my opinion one of the all-time great romances of comics – with Scott Snyder once again skewing it and presenting it in a whole new light, in turn adding more depth and scope to another aspect of the mythos.  And we do get a bit of that here, but at this stage it’s mostly through allusion and foreshadowing of further revelations down the line.  I do like the tougher, battle-worn Abigail we get here, though.  If the Abby we knew in the earlier stories was Sarah Connor in The Terminator, this is her in her badass Terminator 2: Judgement Day phase.

Alec Holland himself has a couple of interesting beats, as he learns a couple of surprising things about himself.  But while I commended Swamp Thing #2 for keeping us so enthralled that we didn’t feel antsy about getting to Alec’s inevitable return to the role of Swamp Thing, three issues in I’m starting to feel that way now.  When the title character of your comic only appears on the front cover and in a one-panel flashback, the desire to get things moving starts to niggle at the back of your mind.

With the Abby/Alec relationship is placed on the backburner in this issue, what becomes the central focus of this chapter is the story of William, a boy with an extreme aversion to chlorophyll who must spend his life locked in a protective bubble.  Through him, we discover that just as Alec Holland has been chosen as the champion of The Green, The Black (also known as The Rot, or The Other) is also seeking a champion, someone with the same connection to the forces of death and decay that Holland has to life and growth.  The way William shifts from victim to terrifying threat is gruesome to behold, but also darkly compelling.

I love how Swamp Thing is currently complimenting Animal Man, where each title works as a story in its own, but if you’re reading both at once you get a tangible sense that this is the same war being fought on two fronts.  People seem to be tired of events and crossovers, but this is an example of crossover done well, when it legitimately feels like a story too big for a single book to contain.  It also helps that it’s the two best comics in DC’s lineup that are the sister titles.

A big part of the success of the first two issues was the incredible, boundary-pushing artwork of Yanick Paquette.  Such was his massive contribution to the unique atmosphere of Swamp Thing that I was initially concerned upon seeing a co-artist solicited for the issue.  I’ve seen enough examples of fill-in artists helping with pages leading to a comic that feels more like a patchwork than a coherent narrative to be wary.  Thankfully, this is not the case with Victor Ibanez.  The art style is so consistent throughout that, especially with Ibanez’s name being absent from the cover, I initially thought that Paquette had drawn the whole issue after all.  Ibanez works hard to draw in a style highly reminiscent of Paquette’s figure work, and the slick colors of Nathan Fairbairn do a great job in making the transition between artists feel largely seamless.

The one area where Ibanez doesn’t quite match Paquette is in his layouts.  Ibanez is a very talented artist, and if he’d been drawing Swamp Thing since issue #1, I’m sure it would still be getting praised as a very good-looking comic book.  But while Paquette certainly brings good-looking work to the table, what has really set his work on Swamp Thing so apart from the crowd is the innovation on display, the mind-blowing construction of panels into immersive, envelope-pushing montages that evoke the landmark work of Steve Bissette.  And as such, it’s the handful of pages Paquette does here that really stand out.  Just take a look at this image:

In the context of the narrative, the image is pretty abstract, its significance not yet clear.  But it’s haunting, and beautiful, and so jarring in its stillness – amidst a comic that up until this point has been dialogue-heavy and kinetic and flowing in its imagery – that it can’t help but make a powerful impression.

Paquette also excels in a double-page spread touching on the troubled history of Abigail and the Arcane family.  The central focal point recalls an image that will pack particular punch with those familiar with Moore’s run, and I got a kick seeing Paquette’s take on the infamous Anton Arcane.  The visual cameo of the Patchwork Man was also a real blast from the past.  Speaking of references to Swamp Thing history, did anyone spot that William’s doctor was called Dr. Durock, after Dick Durock, the actor who played Swamp Thing in the films and the short-lived TV series?

If Swamp Thing #3 might has lost a step from the first two issues, it’s only a step.  This is still superior comics storytelling, steadily setting the stage for an epic drama.  Once again, Swamp Thing and Animal Man are the best comics of their week, and stand proudly as the crown jewels of DC’s New 52.

REVIEW: Batman #2

Sometimes, success is well deserved.  Such was the case for Batman #1, the relaunch of the iconic DC series by writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo.  When the sales figures for September came in, Batman stood proudly as the highest selling of all DC’s New 52 #1s, and as I said, it was well deserved.  In terms of quality, Batman #1 was one of the very best titles I read, meeting the high expectations I had for the comic.  And the comic did its job as a jumping-on point for new readers perhaps better than any other title in the relaunch: with its accessible story and succinct recap of the Batman mythology, this was a comic that could appeal to someone perhaps only familiar with the character through the Christopher Nolan movies, deciding to pick up a comic for the first time.  With such a successful first issue, the question on many’s lips may be, “Does Batman #2 maintain the quality of the first issue?”  Having read the comic, I have to report that no, it doesn’t.  Batman #2 surpasses the first issue!

I think it’s clear that, and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible, Scott Snyder is someone who is very good at talking.  From his eloquent interviews and Twitter sprees where he is able to masterfully get right to the thematic core of his upcoming projects in a way that builds the maximum level of excitement from readers, to the poetic, world-building, character-defining voiceovers and monologues he has become well known for unfolding over the course of his issues, Snyder has proven himself to be a master wordsmith.  But with Batman #2, Snyder displays another highly important skill for a comic writer: knowing when not to talk, when to shut up and let your artist do the talking for you.

Batman #2 is very much a comic based around action, with Snyder setting up not one, but two breathtaking action set-pieces: one a high-speed pursuit involving a helicopter, a train, and the Batcycle, and the other a nerve-wracking fight sequence that takes place during a midair death plummet.  What gives each the frenzied sense of motion that makes it “breathtaking” is the stage direction of one Greg Capullo, who delivered some quality work last issue, but really hits his stride with pinache here.  Capullo is a master of shaping and laying out panels in a way that makes it feel like you’re not reading a series of still images, but are instead immersed in something that’s vibrant, in motion.

But it’s not just in his crafting of action that Capullo excels.  There are all kinds of small moments where I found myself impressed by Capullo’s technique.  One great panel, looking up at Commissioner Gordon through the gaping hole in a murder victim’s chest, is one of the most gruesomely inventive shot angles I’ve seen in a comic in some time.  Really, the whole creative team gets to shine here.  Once again, Jonathan Glapion gets to have fun with some heavy blacks, from Gotham’s skyline cast into ominous silhouette, to a pair of sinister owl’s eyes glowing from the shadow behind an ambulance window.  Colorist FCO Plascenia also gets to flex his muscles, creating an unusual vibe for a Batman comic where the majority of the comic takes place in bright, harsh sunlight.  This is just a stylish comic.

But don’t worry, Snyder still gets some of those nice words in there too.  Right from the opening pages, Snyder continues his sterling work in shaping Gotham City as a pivotal character in its own right, using the city’s history to shape its identity, while also setting up a suspenseful scenario that keeps the tension up throughout the issue.  This really is a relentlessly paced comic, and like I mentioned above, action packed.  But it’s still very much about character.

Batman is so iconic, that it can often be easy for writers – even in good stories – to overlook him as a character.  They’ll give personality to the supporting figures surrounding him, while Bruce Wayne himself simply remains an unwavering constant.  “I’m Batman,” as almost become an all-purposes adjective for the character, a shorthand for actually presenting him as a human being.  Not so, here.  Snyder is not intimidated by the back catalogue, or the iconic status, and cuts right through it all to give us a story that is very much about Batman as a character.  That “I’m always one step ahead and have planned and prepared for everything” quality that much of Morrison’s classic work with the character has been a celebration of is here warped into a kind of hubris, an inability to admit there is a threat in Gotham beyond his understanding that may prove to be his undoing.  We’re in the early stages of that development here, but you get a sense it’ll come further into play later, and I’m fascinated to see where Snyder is going with this.

There are a couple of minor quibbles.  Prospective mayor Lincoln March is an interesting character, and gets a nice monologue laying out the parallels between himself and Bruce Wayne, but as far as “I’m totally a good guy – honest!” characters go, he’s about as trustworthy as Tommy Elliott, and unless Snyder plans to subvert those expectations about him inevitably turning out to be a bad apple, this is a character whose role feels a bit heavily telegraphed.  But that’s a small niggle, and there’s plenty more in the comic that’s executed to perfection.

One small beat I was particularly fond of comes during the autopsy scene, with a seemingly throwaway line from Gordon to Batman, regarding how Bruce Wayne will be protected from the death threat made against him: “I take it you’re keeping an eye on him.”  This is a line that works on three levels.  At its most basic level, it works as simply Gordon acknowledging that Batman is a guy who’s always well prepared.  On a deeper level, for those familiar with recent events in the Batman franchise, it’s an acknowledgement of Bruce Wayne going public as the spearheading figure behind Batman Inc.  And, of course, on the deepest level, it’s giving a nod to the idea (revisited near the end of Snyder’s run on Detective) that Gordon is fully aware that Batman is Bruce Wayne, and pretends not to know simply to humor him and give himself plausible deniability.  It’s a textbook example of how Snyder has achieved the ideal balance between making Batman accessible to new readers and rewarding to longtime readers.

Two issues in, and I’m already imagining the complete, 11-chapter graphic novel collecting this saga joining the canon of classic Batman stories – alongside Snyder’s Black Mirror, might I add.  The pacing is careful and deliberate, with some cards still being held close to the chest, but you get a sense that Snyder knows exactly where he is going, and that the pace and the stakes will continue to escalate with each passing installment.  Furthermore, this is a comic that looks simply stunning, with Greg Capullo and his artistic collaborators giving us one of the slickest looking titles of the New 52.  It’s a good thing that this is the most read comic of all the New 52, as few titles out there showcase all that’s great about DC – and comics in general – better than this one.

REVIEW: Animal Man #2

Last month, Animal Man #1 was one of the surprise hits of the New 52.  Amidst some other high-profile titles released on the same week, I had somewhat overlooked it going in, only for it to emerge as one of my favorites.  And many others agreed, with Animal Man #1 becoming one of the biggest critical darlings of DC’s September relaunch, and in turn becoming a sell-out smash hit.  Now, Animal Man #2 isn’t taking anyone by surprise.  It arrives with the weight of expectation following the stellar debut issue.  A lot of people are expecting the second issue to deliver on the promise of the first.  Thankfully, Animal Man #2 not only lives up to the first issue, it surpasses it!

Writer Jeff Lemire carefully crafted the narrative of Animal Man #1 to make it an exercise in steady transition.  We began with conventional superheroics, but as the issue unfolded, things for progressively stranger, and by the climax Lemire was dipping his toes into the murky waters of Lynchian dream horror.  This issue, however, we dive headlong into this realm of dark psychadelia, and the comic is all the better for it.  There are bleeding meat trees, hippos giving birth to massive, cancerous growths (as someone who’s been to see the hippos at San Diego Zoo, this particular beat was all the more creepy for me), and people’s hands being transformed into chicken feet.  This is a weird comic, brimming with ghoulish invention.

But amidst all this weirdness, Lemire gives us an anchor that keeps the story relatable, and more about heart and emotion than just big ideas.  That anchor comes in the form of the characterisation of Buddy Baker and his family.  As was the case last issue, the family dynamic is the best thing about the comic, but while last time we got to see a regular family meeting around the kitchen table, here we see the Bakers in crisis mode.  Faced with the shocking revelation of Maxine’s newfound powers, how each character reacts helps to further establish their distinct personalities.

Buddy remains a relatable, highly likeable protagonist, and here we see him much more as a family man than as a superhero.  His actions here are driven by a need to protect his family.  We see these protective instincts manifest themselves in his response to an obnoxious neighbour laying his hands on Cliff, and it’s what pushes him to instantly roll with the crazy things happening to him and fly off with Maxine to find the central hub of The Red.  He doesn’t understand the scope of the threat against the world, or even the full extent of his connection to what he calls “the life web”: all that matters to him is ensuring his loved ones are safe.  Grant Morrison’s Animal Man was one of the great Everyman heroes, and Jeff Lemire has really captured that aspect of the character.

His wife Ellen, however, is just as heroic in her own  way.  She doesn’t like it when Buddy’s other life interrupts his home life, and she has long feared that Maxine would be drawn into her father’s world.  “I didn’t sign up for this… craziness when I married you,” she says at one point in the issue.  But while the easy, stereotypical bit of manufactured conflict to enact in this situation is to have the wife threaten to leave the hero (“It’s me or the job!”), Lemire thankfully doesn’t go that route.  As angry as she is, she still supports her husband, because she knows he’s right.  And she doesn’t show her fears to her children: with the way she packs a backpack for Maxine and wraps her up warmly, saying, “Bye, sweetie… be careful!” as she flies off with her dad, you’d think she was sending her daughter off on a school trip rather than a potentially life-threatening mission.  With the controversy DC has attracted for some of its depictions of women with some of its #1s, Ellen Baker is a good example of a well-developed, nuanced female character who keeps her clothes on.

Ostensibly, son Cliff is the comic relief.  When confronted with the nightmarish happenings that open the issue, his first response is to run and grab his phone to film it, while shouting, “This is so badass!”  But more subtly, Lemire gives us hints that there may be more serious development waiting for Cliff down the line.  While Buddy and Maxine go off to find The Red, Cliff is forced to stay behind with Ellen, with Maxine reminding him that this is because he doesn’t have any powers like her and their dad.  This could be the beginnings of a rift between father and son, so this should be one plot strand it will be interesting to see develop.

Possibly stealing the show this time round is Maxine, Buddy’s young daughter.  After the shock revelation that ended last issue, we see more of the disturbing powers she is manifesting, and get the sense that she could be more powerful – and dangerous – than her father.  The best thing about the fondness she shows for her new collection of “pets” or the matter-of-fact way she explains the terrifying knowledge that seems to have popped into her brain (note how seamlessly she seems to have turned into the Maxine from Buddy’s dream last issue) is her childish innocence.  It makes the dark nature of what she knows and what she can do all the more jarring.

While praise for Jeff Lemire’s writing on Animal Man #1 has been pretty much universal, the reception to Travel Foreman’s stylised art has been a lot more mixed.  I said in my review for the first issue that the style wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and sure enough, a lot of people have said it’s too rough and odd-looking, that they’d like the book more if someone else was drawing.  I utterly disagree.  I was very much in the pro-Foreman camp with the first issue, and in the second issue Foreman makes such an impression that I already don’t see how anyone else could draw the title.  I mean, just look at the cover,  that beautiful, horrific cover.  Insane images like that are what make Foreman a perfect fit for this gig.

As I said before, the fact that the characters look so unusual and the setting are quite sparse works in the comic’s favor.  This doesn’t look like any of the straightforward superhero titles in DC’s lineup.  This has its own distinct visual branding, Foreman’s style marking it out as its own entity.  His light linework give even the “normal” scenes at the Baker household a haunting, ethereal quality, and when we delve into The Red, Foreman really gets to cut loose.  In a one-page montage depicting Buddy and Maxine’s journey to find the old tree, Foreman’s layout takes a turn for the abstract, as he depicts the pair walking through a metaphorical network of red veins like the “map” tattooed on Animal Man’s chest.  And the presentation of villains the Hunters Three at the end is wonderfully disturbing, with Foreman very quickly portraying people who look like Something That Shouldn’t Be There is lurking underneath their skin.

But the standout image of  the whole comic comes when Buddy and Maxine enter The Red.  In a lavish, trippy double-page spread, we see the pair spiralling around, Buddy’s body gruesomely warping, as the pair find themselves in a bizarre world with rivers of blood and sculpture-like mountains of bones and animal flesh.  The image is a stunner, and one I find myself still going back to just to stare at.

For the second month running, Swamp Thing and Animal Man stand head and shoulders above a strong offering of new DC titles on the week of their release.  In fact, when I got to my local comic shop on Wednesday afternoon, I picked up one of the last two remaining copies of Animal Man on the shelf, and had to get the display copy of Swamp Thing: if anything proves to me that DC’s relaunch has thus far been a success, it’s that quality titles such as Swamp Thing and Animal Man that are selling out.  If I got nothing else from the New 52, these two sister titles would have made the whole relaunch worthwhile.  In terms of Animal Man #2 in particular, the pacing of this comic is relentless, with narrative and visuals coming together to create an utterly immersive experience for the reader.  Both Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman are on top form, and Animal Man has already established itself as one of the very best titles available on the shelf from any publisher.