Batman Begins: An In-Depth Review

Batman Begins: An In-Depth Review

I wrote this review in the summer of 2008, shortly before the release of The Dark Knight.  It was originally posted on film news site Filmonic.  I now present it on my own blog, unedited, as I’m hoping to post a similar review for The Dark Knight soon as The Dark Knight Rises approaches.

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For me, there is one moment more than any other that sets Batman Begins apart from Spider-Man, that establishes the key differences in tone, and in the worldviews on display in each film.  That moment comes during the film’s climactic set-piece.  After dispatching one of Ra’s al Ghul’s henchmen, Batman takes a tumble, landing among some of the denizens of The Narrows.  Now, in a Spider-Man movie, this would be the moment where the ordinary citizens band around the hero in a show of support (“Us New Yorkers stick together!”).  But in Batman Begins, the panicking crowd form a mob and attack Batman, forcing him to fight back against the very people he’s trying to save.  It’s a stark difference, which encapsulates the fact that this Batman is not the squeaky-clean man of the people that Spider-Man embodies, and suggests a dark heart beating beneath the film’s heroics.  If Spider-Man was the early, defiant response to the atrocity of 9/11, America united through the belief that good will prevail (and Spider-Man existing in a New York where the Twin Towers still proudly stand), then Begins is its darker cousin, embodying the contrasting response:  paranoia, uncertainty, and a fair share of moral questions.

In many ways, Batman Begins is like an anti-superhero movie.  Rather than create a fantasy world where superheroes can exist, Nolan and Goyer take the superhero out of his element and place him in our world.  Serious questions about what drives a man to put on a costume and fight crime – and what the consequences of doing so are – are raised, and many of our assumptions are challenged.  And that’s not just relating to the superhero genre in general, but to our assumptions surrounding the Batman mythos.  Take Gotham City.  For so long presented as a nightmarish, Gothic nightscape, Nolan first presents his Gotham – a shiny, modern metropolis much like Chicago – in bright daylight.  People have complained that grounding the setting of the action so much makes the film too “realistic” (the dreaded word) and strips away the larger-than-life elements of Batman.  I disagree.  When the rest of the world is so grounded and gritty, I feel the presence of a figure like Batman seems all the more fantastical.  His impact is truly felt.

And what about the killing of Thomas and Martha Wayne?  Before Begins, I’m sure most of us had a clear idea of that scene in our head.  Joker-based revelations aside, the scene was executed wonderfully in the Burton Batman film.  The nightmare-haze of it, the slow motion shot of Martha’s pearls scattering across the ground.  And in the comics, Joe Chill is presented as an icon of faceless, nameless evil, whose malevolent presence, in crossing paths with the Wayne family, was enough to create Batman – fully formed in young Bruce’s mind – on the spot.  So, we have our expectations.  And Nolan turns them on their head.  The dramatic, stylised murder of Burton’s film is replaced by a blunt, messy killing.  Joe Chill is no longer a faceless evil – we see the fear on his face before we see it on the Waynes.  And, to varying degrees, Bruce, Thomas and Martha Wayne all become partly to blame for the tragic deaths.  Joe Chill is no criminal mastermind, no epic symbol of Gotham’s evil to shape Bruce’s life – the murders are an act of panic and desperation, and Chill is captured that same night.  For so long, we’ve taken the death of Bruce’s parents for granted, and Nolan makes it upsetting again.  He gives it more meaning, to us as a viewer, by giving it less meaning in the world of the film.  In the film, Nolan underlines its status as a pointless, aimless act of random violence.  As Falcone states later in the film, “Sometimes, things just go bad.”

This idea of stripping down myth to reveal the grubby humanity at the core becomes a recurring theme in the film.  The Ra’s al Ghul we meet at the beginning of the film – hailed as a great leader and fearsome force – is quickly eliminated by Bruce Wayne.  The real Ra’s al Ghul, when revealed later in the film, exposes his “immortality” as nothing more than “cheap parlour tricks”.  Falcone, built up as a nigh-untouchable crime kingpin, exposes himself as a classless hood on his first appearance, and later is subordinated first to Batman, then to Dr. Crane.  Scarecrow, the one “supervillain” in the film, is in truth a wimpy psychologist who is easily beaten by a girl.  Much of the film’s talk surrounds the idea of legend, of people reinventing themselves as symbols, but most importantly, that “it’s what you do that defines you”.  So it’s very appropriate that when it comes to the villains, the man never lives up to the myth.

But the biggest myth of all to be deconstructed is that of Batman himself.  Going back to the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, in so many previous adaptations of Batman, we’ve seen the murder, then it’s fast forward 20 years to Bruce Wayne as Batman.  The murder is his moment of transformation, the moment he decides to become a hero.  And this seems to be a trend in many superhero origin stories on film.  We may seem get their powers, we may see them struggle with them, but the space between them choosing to use their gifts to fight crime, and actually doing so, rarely tends to be any longer than a brief costume-making montage.  But in Batman Begins, that process of becoming a superhero is the meat of the movie, as evidenced by the fact that Batman doesn’t show up until an hour into the movie.  And here’s the kicker:  we don’t miss him.  Because the journey Bruce Wayne takes to get to that point is so fascinating.  Some have complained that having Bruce Wayne come close to killing Joe Chill is too different from the Batman of the comics, who is of course perfect and never even considers doing anything morally questionable.  But I think having Bruce go through these doubts and dark passages makes him a more rounded character.  He isn’t just a paragon of virtue by default.  He has to struggle to become one of “the good people”, he needs the help of various influential figures along the way, he has to become “truly lost” before he can find his way.  And in the end he seems like a better, more believable person for it.  And, of course, if we really think about it, comics Batman isn’t perfect, is he?  Part of what made Batman so fascinating in Year One was that he was a Batman who screwed up, who made stupid mistakes.  Yes, not introducing Batman until an hour into the movie is a gamble, but it gave me a whole new appreciation for a character that is too often overlooked in Batman lore:  Bruce Wayne.

At last, the most fascinating, compelling character in a Batman film, is Batman himself.  And while Nolan and Goyer deserve due praise for crafting a script shaped around Bruce Wayne’s struggle, much of the credit must go to Christian Bale himself.  One of the finest actors of his generation, his casting as Bruce Wayne was certainly a dream choice for me.  But while it would have been all to easy for him to slum it a little, as some feel he did, I think he brought his full dedication to the role.  He underplays it, which some have mistaken for being wooden.  But in fact, Bale shows great versatility by essentially playing three characters in one film.  The first mask is that of playboy Bruce, a smug smirking imbecile who is nevertheless Bruce’s healthiest, most “normal” persona, and as Alfred alludes to, there are various points in the movie where we get an inkling that this is the kind of person Bruce secretly wishes he could be.  Beneath that is the mask of Batman.  And after the lame quips and campy antics of Schumacher’s Batman, how refreshing is it to once again see a Batman that you can believe criminals would find frightening.  He is particularly menacing during his interrogation of Flass, his voice guttural to the point of being animalistic, and totally unlike the Bruce Wayne we’ve seen for the film’s first hour.  And while the previous films, Batman was often in danger of coming across as lumbering and immobile, Begins manages to make him look dangerous again.  Though the fights too often rely on excessive cuts (a topic I’ll discuss later), Batman’s first appearance at the docks is a masterclass in suspense.  Shame about the ending, though.  That moment with the homeless guy – “Nice suit,” PHWOOOOSH! – is, in my opinion, one of the film’s few facepalm moments.  But right up until that point, Batman is presented as something akin to a force of nature, something feral, primal.  The Batman persona feels very much like a cathartic release of Bruce’s pent up anger.  But now we return to the old question – what’s the mask, and what’s the real face?  It’s become popular to say that the public persona of playboy Bruce Wayne is the mask, and Batman is the real face.  Rachel Dawes even says it.  But she’s wrong.  Batman and playboy Bruce are both masks.  And the real Bruce Wayne turns out to be the most compelling performance of all.

I’m a big fan of Michael Keaton’s performance as Batman, and I’ve often cited his definitive moment as the character coming in Batman Returns, in the scene where we see him just sitting in his lounge, in the dark, staring aimlessly out the window, just waiting for the Bat Signal to light up.  That moment perfectly captured Burton’s take on the character, presenting Bruce Wayne as an empty shell who only really comes to life as Batman.  Bale’s definitive moment in Begins comes moments after he has sedated the rescued Rachel Dawes.  He turns his back to the camera, and we see him take off his mask….and shrink before our eyes.  His shoulders slump, he looks upwards and just stands there, as if lost.  Say hello to the real Bruce Wayne.

With Spider-Man, the strength of Tobey Maguire’s performance is that he makes us feel close to Peter Parker – he’s relatable, we feel like he’s our friend, that with his narration he’s taking us into his confidence.  On the other hand, the strength of Christian Bale’s performance in Begins is that Bruce Wayne ultimately remains unknowable.  We follow his journey through the whole film, but always seem to be kept at arm’s length.  It is a very restrained, reigned-in performance, that of a man uncomfortable in his own skin, only capable of fluency when donning one of his masks.  Even in the scenes where he trains with Ducard, his dialogue (“I seek the means to fight injustice”, “My anger outweighs my guilt”) come across as Bruce saying what he feels he is supposed to say, throwing Ducard’s rhetoric back at him as a substitute for expressing his own innermost thoughts.  Another mask.  In the moments where he is alone, where he is most himself, flashes of the past – of his father, of the bats – dominate his thoughts.  Perhaps Bruce Wayne – the real Bruce Wayne – never really developed beyond that childhood.  Ironically enough, one performance Bale’s reminds me of is that of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.  Bruce Wayne shares Ennis Del Mar’s rage and guilt, internalised and eating away at him because he can’t express it, leaving him permanently coiled up and distant from both other characters and us viewers.  Only Bruce Wayne is never granted the emotional release that Ennis gets in the closing moments of Brokeback.  No, Bruce Wayne ends Begins by once more retreating behind the mask of Batman.  Christian Bale gives a phenomenal performance as Batman, in my opinion the best seen thus far on film.

Batman Begins has rightly received much praise for framing Bruce Wayne as the main character.  But who’s the second most important character?  It’s not Alfred, or Rachel Dawes.  It’s Ra’s al Ghul.  Despite the fact that he disappears for a large portion of the film, his presence is constantly felt.  It is what he stands for that makes him so significant.  But first, a more general word on the role of villains in Nolan’s Batverse, as I see it.  I talked earlier about the post-9/11 connotations of “Begins”, and I think they once again manifest themselves in the villains.  The idea of using fear as a weapon is one familiar to those following this never-ending “war on terrorism”.  Terrorists of course use fear as a tool to further their goals, hence the name.  But there’s plenty of fear at play on the American side of things, watch some Fox News and it seems like they’re trying their utmost to keep people good and scared.  So it’s highly appropriate that Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow would exploit fear to force a city to tear itself apart.  Ra’s al Ghul in particular represents a kind of villain that is recognisable to many of us in this day and age.  He does not want world domination or personal revenge, like your usual movie supervillain.  His enemy is our society, our way of life, our very way of looking at the world.  His ideology demands the annihilation of ours.  It’s the kind of motivation we see in real-life villains on the news every day.  Judging from what we’ve seen so far, these are overtones Nolan will continue to explore with his interpretation of The Joker.

But going back to Ra’s al Ghul, a big strength of the character’s realisation in “Begins” is that he comes to us in the perennially-trustworthy, mentorly form of Liam Neeson.  And to Neeson’s credit, he never plays Ra’s al Ghul like a villain.  That’s always been a pet peeve of mine in film and TV, when a supposed good guy is revealed to be a villain, and all of a sudden starts “acting evil”, totally inconsistent with what came before.  Neeson thankfully doesn’t fall into this trap.  His performance remains consistent throughout, with his villainy being so intriguing because of the noble intentions driving it.  Hence why the hurt is so clear in Ra’s al Ghul’s eyes when Bruce once again rejects him in their confrontation in Wayne Manor.  In his mind, he and Bruce are one in the same.  They both aspire to the same thing:  justice.  It’s in their methods that the conflict arises.

I’ve seen much talk about fear being a dominant theme in the film.  This is true.  But another theme which isn’t discussed enough is that of boundaries.  Physical boundaries, of course, such as the divide between The Narrows and the rest of Gotham, but more importantly, moral boundaries.  How far outside the law is too far?  One of the film’s most fascinating elements is the fact that it never takes the presence of a superhero for granted, instead raising important moral questions about what sets someone like Batman apart from a common vigilante, or about whether someone like Batman does more harm than good.  After the car chase scene (which I’ll discuss in more depth later) we get news footage of the massive damage Batman has left in his wake.  And then of course there’s the escalation theory, lifted out of the comics, and brought to life perfectly in the excellent final scene with Batman and Gordon.  The idea that Batman is partly responsible for the rise of “the freaks” just for existing.  Ra’s al Ghul is a fascinating foe for Batman because of this theme of boundaries, and the fact that Ra’s has crossed all of Bruce’s.  Their fight is a moral question:  they’re both operating outside the law in hopes of finding justice, but without crossing the biggest boundary of all – murder – is Batman’s mission a pointless one?  We’ve heard reports that in The Dark Knight, The Joker will essentially be a Macguffin, and the real storyline will be the one that develops between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent.  And this is a rumor I can totally buy as being true, because if Dent becomes Two-Face, as a murderous vigilante like in The Long Halloween, it’s exploring similar moral murk as the dynamics that exist between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul here.  And to me, the only real bum note in this dynamic comes when Batman leaves Ra’s al Ghul to die.  “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” seems like a cop-out to me.  It is essentially killing him.  Batman shouldn’t kill, period.  If his moral code becomes “I won’t kill anyone, unless they’re really bad,” then it sets up a rather slippery slope, where Batman is in danger of not being all that different from a common vigilante after all.

On the subject of bum notes, one of the most commonly criticised elements of the film is Katie Holmes’ performance as Rachel Dawes.  I can understand the criticisms, I was harsh on her myself in early viewings.  But with each repeat viewing, I somewhat soften my stance on her contribution to the film.  See, as far as performances go, Katie Holmes does well, all things considered.  She has good chemistry with Christian Bale (and, oddly enough, Cillian Murphy, but I’ll get to that later), and her interactions with Bale are refreshingly free of the emo dramatics of Peter Parker & Mary-Jane.  Their relationship feels more grown-up.  That is, until they try to force it into a love relationship.  First things first, I totally disagree with Bruce giving away that he is Batman to Rachel.  Just seemed a little irresponsible, like he just couldn’t contain himself any longer, and was willing to jeopardise his secrecy for a pat in the back from his cutie-pie.  But there’s more.  The way they build Rachel and Bruce up, I can buy them as close friends, and to a degree I can even buy Rachel as a strong character.  But near the end, when she kisses Bruce, and talks about how much she wants to be with him, it doesn’t feel right.  It’s the one point where the artifice of Rachel is exposed, and she is revealed for what she truly is:  the token love interest.

And this is part of a recurring flaw in Batman Begins.  The deconstruction of the superhero myth is fascinating, but the other side of this is that the film seems least comfortable with itself when it has to, you know, be a superhero movie.  It’s not all doom and gloom, I should add.  Despite the criticisms over the action set-pieces, some are wonderfully executed.  The sword-fight on the ice lake is beautiful, Wally Pfister at his most majestic.  Now would be a good time to just praise the excellent cinematography of Wally Pfister throughout the film, especially the parts shot in Iceland.  And as I mentioned earlier, Batman’s strike on the docks is great.  But some of the action sequences, while sound in theory, are flawed in the execution.  And what lets them down is the camerawork.

I’ll take the car chase as my example here.  First time I watched the film, I thought the car chase was a bit disappointing.  But every time I watch Begins, I like the car chase a little more.  And now, I actually realise it’s a very good car chase.  It’s just that it’s sold short by the camerawork.  I’ll literally watch the film, and pick up stuff in the car chase that I wasn’t even aware had happened.  Because when you have scenes that are just CUT-CUT-CUT-CUT-CUT-CUT-CUT, it all begins to blur into one, and you kinda tune out.  And that’s what keeps scenes like this out of the elite of its kind.  With the best car chases (and action sequences in general), you’re aware of everything that’s happening.

But it’s not just with some of the action that the film sits uncomfortably.  It’s some of the genre conventions.  The aforementioned obligatory love interest.  The obligatory “superhero is nice to a kid” moment, which kinda works with an upbeat hero like Spider-Man, but is cringingly out of place with this take on Batman.  And God, is that kid annoying!  Why does he have to whisper every line?  The fact that Ra’s al Ghul and The League of Shadows have to be responsible (even if its indirectly) for the death of Bruce’s parents, Nolan relenting to the same urge for symmetry that Burton felt when he made The Joker the murderer, albeit in a more subtle form.  Then there’s poor Gordon.  While I like the idea of him helping to save the day, much of the stuff relating to him and the Tumbler made him come across as a bumbling clown, from “I gotta get me one of those!” to his in-car slapstick.  It just felt so tacked on, as the “we have to have comedy in this big action sequence” bit.  For another example, see the cops’ one-liners during the supposed-to-be tense car chase where Rachel’s life hangs in the balance.  And it’s a shame, because for the rest of the film, Gary Oldman absolutely nails Gordon.  He channels a quiet, world-weary gravitas that seems lifted right out of the comics, and that Pat Hingle never really got right in the old series.  Having Gordon be a part (however small) of young Bruce’s life was a great touch by Nolan and Goyer, and Oldman acts the scene brilliantly.  And that is framed by the previously-mentioned closing scene, with Gordon in the more familiar setting of a rooftop meeting with Batman.  It’s an intriguing mini-arc for Gordon in the film, losing his hope for Gotham, and regaining it.  A very strong performance by Oldman, and I hope to see Gordon’s role expanded in The Dark Knight.

What about the other characters?  Michael Caine is wonderful as Alfred.  Of course, its hard not to like Michael Gough as Alfred, but I think that portrayal was over-sentimentalised, presenting Alfred too much as a sweet old man, which I don’t envision Alfred as being.  Unlike Gough, Caine brings a hardened edge to the character, and touches on an element of Alfred that I’ve always found to be the most engaging.  The idea that while Bruce Wayne has spent his whole life obsessing over the loss of his father, he doesn’t recognise that the man who has been more of a father to him than Thomas Wayne ever was is right there.  This aspect is never obvious, but I see flashes of it whenever Alfred talks of the Wayne legacy, and especially when Bruce coldly tells him “it’s not your family.”  Morgan Freeman and Rutger Hauer both excel in their smaller roles, adding intrigue and presence to the Wayne Enterprises machinations, and ensuring these scenes never feel like filler, or empty exposition.  On the villainous side of things, Ken Watanabe (who I usually like) stretches too far into eyebrow-arching camp for my liking, while Tom Wilkinson performs well (as he always does) in the limited role of Carmine Falcone, a character who could have been much more than he was in the film, so somewhat of a wasted opportunity there.

Special mention should go to Cillian Murphy, for his chilling performance as Jonathan Crane.  I’ll admit, I was cynical at first over the casting of Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow.  I thought they’d just picked some pretty-boy for the part.  But from his first scene, I was proven absolutely wrong.  Murphy is a great young actor, and I think he’s going to get much bigger in future years.  His star has already started to rise since “Begins”, and his performance here certainly shows signs of a star-in-the-making.  He brings a slimy, reptilian stillness to the part of Crane which just fits so well with the character, his gleaming, nigh-unblinking eyes ensuring that Crane is a suitably unnerving presence even without the Scarecrow mask.  And when he becomes Scarecrow, and the Fear Gas is in effect, he really is genuinely frightening.  I find the voice distortions in particular to be intriguing, as it sets up parallels with Batman, and the techniques he uses to scare people.  But while he is a frightening presence, Crane is also an understated one.  And this seems like a quite deliberate statement by Nolan and Goyer, in the wake of the villain-dominated films of the last franchise.  Visually, his look is toned down, and I think effectively so.  The loss of the complete Scarecrow outfit is more grounded for the world of the film, but the image of the eerie burlap-sack head on top of the suit is an eerie image in its own right.  Furthermore, in comparison to the villains in the last series (some of whom got top billing over Batman himself), Scarecrow finds his screen-time stripped right back.  Not that it hurts him.  While we’re so used to villains getting lots of hype, only to be totally underwhelming in their small roles (I’m looking at you, Star Wars prequel trilogy), Cillian Murphy makes the absolute most of his limited screen-time, making an impact in every scene he appears.  And in contrast to the OOT shenanigans of former Bat-villains, Crane’s performance is one of great subtlety.  One element of the comics which is quietly incorporated – not in the script, but in Murphy’s performance – is the idea of Crane himself being a man who’s always afraid.  Just look at his scenes with Katie Holmes.  He’s unable to hold eye contact with her (until he has on the Scarecrow mask, of course, then he stares intently) and when he enters the Asylum, he has a little moment of taking his glasses off, then putting them back on, as if agonising over which look is going to impress Rachel Dawes more.  When preparing to confront Batman in the asylum, what I got out of his conversation with his lackeys is that he was quite clearly afraid, and that he was relishing that fear.  It’s an idea that I feel rings quite true with Scarecrow.  One of the better Bat-villains we’ve seen on the big screen thus far.

Yes, Batman Begins is a great ensemble piece.  But when it comes down to it, if this film belongs to anyone, it belongs to Christopher Nolan.  Though some consider it a departure, on closer inspection this is quite clearly a Christopher Nolan film.  After watching the two films within days of each other, I have to say that, in particular, Batman Begins plays as an interesting counterpoint to Memento.  Both deal with obsession and guilt, the pain of loss, with the question of vengeance, and its consequences.  Both Bruce Wayne and Leonard Shelby are protagonists haunted by their past, driven by it.  In Leonard’s case, he is consumed by it, literally unable to formulate any lasting present due to the loss of his short-term memory.  Leonard’s revenge-killing is an empty act of violence that brings him no catharsis.  Does Bruce Wayne achieve catharsis?  I’m not sure.  He finds a purpose, but that purpose involves taking up a never-ending mission, with no resolution in sight.  But he conquers his demons, and unlike Leonard, he learns from his mistakes, rather than being doomed to repeat them endlessly.  It ends on a note of optimism that contrasts with the inescapable pessimism of Memento, perhaps because while Leonard’s future has already been set out for us as that film comes to a close, Bruce Wayne – and Batman – ends “Begins” with a future full of potential and possibilities.

Full of stellar performances and compelling narrative questions, Batman Begins is arguably the greatest superhero movie ever made.  I loved it the first time I saw it, but on each subsequent viewing, I take something new from it, get something more out of it.  With time, it just gets better.  I’d rank it as one of my favourite films.  That’s not saying it’s one of the greatest films ever made, but for me, personally, Batman Begins connected with my vision of what this character can and should be on film, creating a world that I am invested in, and I want to see more of.  And that’s the best thing:  like the title suggests, this is only the beginning.  One thing you get a real sense of throughout this movie (and something I’ve touched upon several times in this review) is that Batman Begins is a film full of foreshadowing, full of ideas waiting to be explored and expanded with The Dark Knight.  As great as Batman Begins is a standalone piece of cinema, I don’t think we will feel its full impact until it is viewed in the context of The Dark Knight this summer.  And I, for one, can’t wait.

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: 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 #4

Many apologies: this review is about a month late, and so not exactly topical.  Perhaps the reason for the delay is that I’m running out of things to say about Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s enthralling relaunch of Batman.  I can only say what I feel I’ve said over the past 3 months: this tops the last instalment, and is the best issue yet.

Batman #3 began to pull back the curtain a little on the sheer scope of the threat Batman faced, elevating what was already a gripping story to a whole new level.  From there, it would have been very tempting to just barrel on ahead with the white-knuckle ride, and I’m sure that would have resulted in a very good comic.  But instead, Snyder dials back, and instead goes introspective with an issue that focuses on the character of Bruce Wayne, and his motivations in this particular battle.  I’ve talked before about how Batman’s utter refusal to believe in the existence of the Court of Owls was in danger of becoming a kind of hubris, one in danger of leading to his downfall.  But here, we discover Bruce’s very personal reasons for not believing in them, reasons which go deeper than mere hard-headedness.

We really don’t see enough of young Bruce Wayne.  In the character’s comic history, it seems like his parents died, then he disappeared into a vacuum for several years – popping up here and there as a young man going on globe-trotting adventures to hone his body and mind – before emerging as an adult just in time for Batman: Year One.  So, I found it fascinating getting a glimpse here of Bruce Wayne as a child, in the more immediate aftermath of his parent’s death.  We see anger, in danger of becoming destructive – it’s glossed over, but see how he kills the owl and destroys its eggs: the kind of spiteful animal cruelty more associate with future serial killers than superheroes – but he’s not totally lost in grief.  We see how, even as a young boy, Bruce Wayne had a keen, analytical mind, and a desire to seek justice and hunt down the corrupt.  I enjoy it when Morrison touches on this idea, and it’s nice seeing Snyder assert it too: contrary to what some commentators have said, no, not anybody can be Batman.  It wasn’t the years of training, the vast resources, or even the tragedy that made Bruce Wayne Batman.  It was something about him, something that was always there, even when he was young.

As a brief aside, who here would love to see an all-ages series from DC called Bruce Wayne: Boy Detective?  GET ON IT, DC!

Talking about this flashback sequence is as good a time as any to bring up my ever-growing love for Greg Capullo.  I’ve been full of praise for the bombastic, blockbuster imagery Capullo has brought to this title since day one, and this issue’s opening sequence – with Batman escaping from an exploding building – really lets Capullo flex those action muscles.  But Capullo shows real diversity when chronicling Bruce Wayne’s childhood encounter with the Court of Owls – aided by the immersive blacks of Jonathan Glapion and the muted, almost monochrome palette of FCO – shifting to a stark, eerie style more reminiscent of horror than A-list superhero fare.

Looking beyond the flashback and into the issue as a whole, Batman #4 boasts one of my favourite Capullo pages yet: Batman standing in shadow, looking on, as Gordon waits for him to show up at the Bat Signal.  Iconic.  Capullo impresses me more and more with each passing month, doing real superstar work that – even before you get into Snyder’s excellent story – is going to ensure that the eventual graphic novel collection of this storyline is as visually definitive as a Long Halloween or a Hush.

Given how I’m running out of nice things to say about this title, I may very well have said this already.  But in the first few months of the New 52, in my praise of the accessible, action-packed Batman, I said that it was one of the very best of the DC relaunch, second only to Animal Man and Snyder’s own Swamp Thing.  But I don’t think I can even make that concession anymore.  Batman is the best book DC is putting on shelves, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.  Batman #5 is due out tomorrow.  All reports suggest that it is the best issue yet.  Of course it is.

My Top Ten Comics of 2011

It’s been another great year for comics, and if there’s been a dominant theme of the year, it would be change.  Most notably, we had the big change of DC relaunching its universe in September.  In terms of my comic reading, there are some changes as well.  Marvel has been all but entirely cut from my pull list, while the aforementioned relaunch has seen me now juggling more DC titles monthly than ever.  A lot of titles that featured in my top ten last year, such as American Vampire, Sweet Tooth, Chew, Morning Glories and even The Walking Dead, failed to make the cut this year, though with the exception of Morning Glories, I still read and enjoy all of them.  Other honourable mentions include high-octane Western The Sixth Gun, stylish fantasy romp Demon Knights, and The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, which might very well have made the top ten if more issues had been released this year.   And that’s not to mention the comics of this year that I’m still meaning on getting round to: I finally read Daytipper this April, and if I’d read it in 2010 it would have had a good chance at topping the list.  But enough about what’s not on the list, scroll down and take a look at what did make the cut!

10. AXE COP: BAD GUY EARTH

In terms of boundless creativity, there was no comic this year to match Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider it was written by a 6 year old.  Many comics have tried to match that sense of spontaneous, zany joy so effortlessly created by Malachai Nicolle and his artist brother Ethan, but none quite managed to pull it off.  Axe-wielding, psychotic cops, flying, fire-breathing dinosaurs, using the power of prayer to make everyone in the world simultaneously poop their pants, the ideas and high concepts are fired out at a dizzying rate.  It’s also absolutely hilarious, with a new laugh-out-loud moment on almost every page.  This might not pack the depth and nuance of the other entries on this list, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any other comic that has as much pure fun.

9. SECRET SIX

Overall, DC’s New 52 initiative this year has most definitely been a huge success.  Sales are through the roof, and I’m buying more quality DC comics each month than I have in a long time.  But there have been bad points about it too, and there is perhaps no greater casualty of this relaunch than the loss of Secret Six: not just in terms of the title being cancelled, but in terms of the events contained within it apparently being erased from continuity to make room for the unfortunate Suicide Squad relaunch.  I had said repeatedly that Gail Simone’s offbeat supervillain team book was perhaps the most consistently great title on DC’s publishing schedule.  But while the plots were solid, more than anything it was the characterisation of this oddball roster of psychos and outcasts that made this series soar, with them becoming less like a team than a family.  In this final year of this 36-issue run (not including the two mini-series’ that came before), the knowledge of the impending end gave Secret Six added poignancy, and the emotional weight of saying goodbye to old friends.  And it is goodbye.  I’m sure these characters will all show up elsewhere in the DCU (many already have), but they won’t be like they were here.

8. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY

 

How embarrassing for Marvel that, with all the hype that went into The Mighty Thor – the relaunched series from the powerhouse pairing of Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel that began just in time to tie in with this year’s Thor movie – it ended up getting totally upstaged in the quality department by Journey into Mystery.  Sure, Journey into Mystery might not have the sales to match, but discerning readers quickly figured out where to get their best monthly dose of Asgard.  Indeed, this series from writer Kieron Gillen and a variety of artists (most prolifically Doug Braithwaite) could very well be the best comic in the Marvel Universe.  The surprising thing about this series as it has developed is that it’s truly an ensemble piece, with characters quietly building up complex, interconnected histories.  But the star of the show is undoubtedly Loki, here reborn as a child.  He still has the witty, manipulative nature of his older self, but has not yet been corrupted by a lifetime of disdain, so to a degree his innocence is intact.  It’s a compelling look at nature VS nurture, and makes Loki one of the most intriguing protagonists in comics right now.  Journey into Mystery spent much of 2011 making lemons out of lemonade with a Fear Itself tie-in that was better than the actual event.  In 2012, Kieron Gillen gets to tell his own story, and I’m fascinated to see where that story goes.

7. SEVERED

It was a good year for horror, with Severed being the first of several entries in the genre to make it into my top ten.  This Depression-era period piece by co-writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft and artist Atilla Futaki stands distinct from much of the rest of the horror output of the comics world by actually being scary.  While too many creators mistake making a reader recoil from the page in disgust and say, “Eeeew,” for frightening them, Snyder and Tuft know how to turn the screws and leave us as readers with a knotted feeling of dread in our stomach, waiting for something terrible to happen.  The whole bear-trap sequence in issue #3 in particular was a masterclass in simmering dread.  The pace is slow, and over 5 issues Severed has taken its time on having the paths of our youthful hero Jack and the monstrous, cannibalistic child-killer known only as The Salesman cross and intertwine.  But this has worked wonders, as the meandering plot has allowed us time to grow truly attached to the characters, making the horrific things that happen to them genuinely upsetting.  There are 2 issues left, and though I know it’s unlikely to end well for poor Jack, I can’t look away.

6.  ECHOES

 

While we’re on the subject of horror, this miniseries by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal operated with a deep understanding of what makes the genre work so well.  Like some of the best horror movies – The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby spring to mind – Echoes retains for as long as possible a sense of ambiguity over whether our protagonist is plagued by external horrors or simply their own hysteria.  I won’t spoil whether it turns out to be the former or the latter, as you really need to read it for yourself, but I will say that the nightmare loving husband and diagnosed schizophrenic Brian Cohn finds himself in is utterly compelling, not least because Cohn himself is so well developed by Fialkov that we grow to care about him and, in spite of the genre, invest in his well-being.  But a big part of Echoes’ success is the artwork of Ekedal, perfectly measured to maximise tension and make the horror feel tangible and real.  I can see this being a very successful, very scary movie in the future, but this is more than just source material ripe for the picking: Echoes is a quintessential horror comic, as its creators skilfully use the tools of the medium to draw its frights.

5.  CRIMINAL: THE LAST OF THE INNOCENT

Before I read this latest volume of the acclaimed crime series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the only exposure I’d had to Criminal was through the first volume, Coward.  I read that, and thought it was a good heist story, cleverly plotted and slickly drawn, but never felt desperate to try other volumes.  Perhaps because I read it around the same time I picked up the first volume of Scalped, which got a lot more of my attention.  But I don’t know what it was – perhaps my interest in the upcoming Fatale by Brubaker/Phillips, or perhaps the eye-catching cover of the graphic novel that drew me in when I was browsing for a graphic novel to try – but I decided to give The Last of the Innocent a go, picking it up as a last-minute Christmas present to myself.  I’m glad I did.  The Last of the Innocent is much better than Coward (which was good in its own right), not just in terms of the depth of the storytelling, but in the ambition of the visuals.  The two combine to give us a powerful tale of the cruelty of nostalgia, and the hell a man can create for himself while in search of something better.  At last, I’ve bought into the Criminal hype.

4. ANIMAL MAN

When reading about the various titles in DC’s New 52 relaunch, I expected Animal Man to be good.  I liked the work Grant Morrison did with the character, and reading books like Sweet Tooth and Essex County had already ensured that seeing the name Jeff Lemire on anything was like a watermark of quality.  But still, I was taken aback by just how good Animal Man was, standing out as one of the very best titles of the relaunch.  Perhaps it’s because, while Jeff Lemire’s storytelling is just as great as I’ve come to expect, with the family dynamic of everyman hero Buddy Baker and his wife and children acting as the heart of the book, the art of Travel Foreman took me completely by surprise.  It’s not been to everyone’s tastes, but I love it, his ethereal style adding an undertone of weirdness to even the more conventional scenes, but truly coming to life with the sequences of Lovecraftian monster horror.  When combined, the end result is one of the most distinctive titles of the Big Two.  I may have been taken by surprise after the first issue, but now Animal Man is a title I thoroughly expect to blow me away each month.  It hasn’t let me down yet.

3.  SWAMP THING

The other crown jewel of DC’s New 52, this one from the powerhouse pairing of Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette.  While Animal Man was an unexpected pleasure, I had high hopes for Swamp Thing from the moment it was announced.  I hold the classic Alan Moore run in very high regard, ranking it as one of my all-time favourite comics.  So it is no small praise to say that Snyder not only lives up to the legacy of that landmark run, but expands on and enriches the mythology it established, finding new wrinkles and dark avenues that fit in so organically to the tapestry that it’s almost as if Alan Moore put them there.  But it’s not just Moore Snyder pays homage to, revisiting in new ways some of the original themes explored by Len Wein in the first ever Swamp Thing stories, restoring Alec Holland to the mix and examining who he is and what drives him when you take the big green plant monster out of the mix.  Paquette, meanwhile, continues the grand tradition of visual innovation explored by artists such as Bernie Wrightson and Stephen Bissette, giving us rich montages that, in spite of the gruesome subject matter they are often depicting, must still be referred to as “beautiful.”  Along with Animal Man, Swamp Thing is crafting an immersive mythology that stands as one of the most interesting corners of the whole DCU.

2. DETECTIVE COMICS

2011 was a vintage year for Batman comics.  Though delays hurt its momentum slightly, Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated has continued to impress, with a couple of great one-shot issues proving particularly memorable.  Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman & Robin has been one of my surprise highlights of the relaunch.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, meanwhile, could very well be my favourite of all the New 52, and if it keeps on going the way it is, I’d say it’s already a strong contender to rank highly in 2012’s year-end list.  But if I had to just pick one Batman comic to place in the list for 2011, it would have to be Snyder’s previous work on Detective Comics.  Bruce Wayne was completely absent, with Dick Grayson and Jim Gordon instead taking centre stage in a dark, twisted powerfully drawn by Jock and Francesco Francavilla.  The idea that Gotham City itself is a kind of antagonist for our heroes is not a new one, but the execution of the idea was as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it.  The Black Mirror, the graphic novel collecting this 11-issue run, is already poised to enter the canon of all-time great Batman stories.

1. SCALPED

Yes, I know, I’m very dull and predictable.  It topped the list in 2010, and Scalped breezes to the top spot once again in 2011.  But the crime saga from Jason Aaron and (among others) R.M. Guera has earned its placing by being the most consistently excellent comic on the shelves, month after month.  The year got off to a powerful start with You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, a character-driven 5-part tale exploring how various members of our cast would respond when faced with life-altering decisions.  Some of those choices were surprising, others were crushingly inevitable, but all made for fascinating reading.  Then, Scalped got to celebrate a landmark 50th issue in memorable fashion, taking a break from the ongoing narrative to give us a standalone tale that nevertheless managed to concisely encapsulate the themes of the entire series.  And now we’re in the midst of Knuckle Up, where the agonising tension and the deaths of long-standing characters puts me in mind of The Gnawing, the gut-wrenching arc that helped seal Scalped’s spot at the top last year.  But perhaps the drama has even more potency this time round, tempered with the knowledge that the end is nigh, that after issue #60 the story of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation and its residents will be over.  Savour it while you can, comic fans: one of the all-time great overlooked classics of the comic medium is reaching is coming to a close.  We’ll see if its final chapter can top next year’s list and make it a hat trick.

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.

My Week in New York: Saturday

I got up even earlier on Saturday, setting my alarm for the scary time of 6am, and was down at the Javits Center by around 8:30am.  I think that’s as much a testament to how slow I am in the mornings as it is to my earliness.  Even at this time, however, the queue outside the building dwarved even the big line from the day before.  I could tell that Saturday at New York Comic Con was going to be crazy.

Joe arrived early with a fresh shipment of stock, which was appreciated, as we were starting to run down.  Indeed, by Friday night we’d sold all the stock of Red Ten and Scam we had, which I suppose is a good problem to have!  With the increased Saturday traffic, we managed to get a lot more people at our table and looking at our stuff, but we were still having some trouble really hooking people and closing the deal.  Joe and I couldn’t help but throw Glengarry Glenn Ross references at each other: “Coffee is for closers!”  “A.I.D.A.!”  It was also really interesting observing how master pitcher Tyler would alter and adjust his pitch for each book depending on who he was talking to.  To read about his technique, and more notes from New York Comic Con, be sure to check out Tyler’s awesome ComixTribe column here.

One great moment of the day came from meeting Stephen Blaha, who I’ve known for years as Superferret on Superhero Hype.  He bought copies of The Standard #1 and #2, and we chatted for a bit about forum and RPG stuff.  One of the great things about travelling to comic cons in America in recent years has been being able to meet these people I’ve known for ages through message boards, but finally being able to put a face and a voice to the username.

I took a minute to do a bit of shopping.  Well, I say “took a minute”, but with how insanely packed the show floor was on Saturday, a brief journey to nearby stalls that would have only taken a few minutes before all of a sudden required a commitment of quite a bit of time.  From the Midtown Comics booth, I picked up a few gifts for friends back home, the first volume of the Starman Omnibus for myself, and a copy of Voodoo Heart, a collection of short stories by Scott Snyder.  This was the prose novel that first brought Snyder to the attention of the comics world, and though it’s not readily available in the UK, I was keen to pick it up and check it out.  Plus, I could add it to my hefty pile of signing material for Scott Snyder, as I already had samples from just about every other project he’s worked on.

Scott Snyder has quickly become one of my favorite comic writers, and he was one of the people I was most excited to meet.  I had been periodically checking his Artist’s Alley table over the first couple of days of the con, but he never seemed to be there.  And on Saturday, he’d left a note at his table saying he wouldn’t have time to be there much, and the best place to find him would be at his designated signings.  The first one was at the DC Comics booth.  Foolishly, I headed over to that one – clutching my pile of Snyder books –  a mere few minutes before the signing was scheduled to start.  The line was already massive.  And, in a bit of a dick move, the guy about 3 people in front of me let me and a few others wait and talk amongst ourselves for several minutes before turning around, shouting “SURPRISE!” and flashing his I AM THE LAST PERSON IN THIS QUEUE sign, saying no one would be seen after him.  So, that was a near miss.

I only had one panel to attend today, which was the DC Dark/Edge panel.  I’m not reading many of the Edge comics, but for me, the Dark titles have been the highlight of the DC relaunch, and so I was really excited to find out more about what was coming up from them.  I was lucky enough to get a seat in the front row for this one, which was an added bonus.  Before the panel started, I spotted Joshua Hale Fialkov milling around, so I ran over to say hello.  He kindly agreed to sign my copies of Tumor and Echoes, as well as I, Vampire #1.  When you read how screwed up the protagonists in his books are, you may be surprised to learn that Mr. Fialkov is a warm, personable guy, and we chatted a little bit about the British NHS and the history of the I, Vampire franchise.  I must say, getting the Fialkov books signed would be a big weight off my shoulders.  No, I mean literally: I would no longer need to carry around two hardcover graphic novels in my satchel bag each day.

I spotted someone else before the panel started: Scott Snyder!  Perhaps a bit rudely, I shouted, “Oy, Scott!” to get his attention.  You can take the Glaswegian out of Glasgow, but you can’t take the Glasgow out of the Glaswegian, it would seem.  I asked him if he had any plans to be at his Artist’s Alley table that day, as I’d just missed him at his DC signing.  He said he’d be at a signing at Midtown Comics later in the day, but if I just had a few things he could sign them now.  I told him I had a big pile, so it would probably be better waiting for the Midtown Comics signing.  He complimented my (Swamp Thing!) shirt and asked me my name, and I was left very happy at having met Scott Snyder, who came across as just as friendly as he does online and in interviews.

A blurry photo of an Animal Man #3 page by Travel Foreman that you've probably already seen in hi-res.

The panel itself was great fun, as we got treated to glimpses of art – cover and interior – for a whole range of quality titles.  Scott Snyder gave us a teaser of a villain who shows up in the next issue of Swamp Thing who sounds really great, and an ideal foe for Swamp Thing.  Apparently it’s a guy with control over decay, who can find any small piece of decay in someone – even a bit of rot in a tooth – and make it grow and spread throughout that person’s whole body.  Plus, he’s allergic to chlorofill, so has to wear an oxygen mask at all times.  Sounded really cool.  Some problems with dodgy mics up on the stage caused some delays, though, so by the time we’d gotten through everyone and their books there wasn’t much time for questions..  But still, a really fun panel.

Learning my lesson from the last attempt, I headed straight from the panel to join the queue for Scott Snyder’s Midtown Comics signing, a good 20 minutes early.  The queue was still sizable, and with the way it stretched out across the con floor, we were causing a bit of a fire hazard, and we constantly had people having to break through the line to get past us.  But I did get talking to people in the line, so the time went by quickly enough.  However, my heart sank when I neared the front of the line, and the moderator informed us we could only get 3 items maximum signed.  I looked down with sadness at my pile of 10 books, and with great difficulty, chose 3 titles – American Vampire #1, Batman #1, Swamp Thing #1 – for Scott to sign.

When I got to the table, Scott not only recognised me, but remembered my name.  That amazed me, as I was hopeless at remembering the names of even the handful of repeat visitors at the ComixTribe table, so given how many fans Scott must have met, that was quite a skill.  Living up to his reputation as the nicest guy in comics, Scott recalled that I’d had a big pile of comics I wanted signed, and said I could leave the rest of my stuff with  him, and he’d sign it all at the end.  This was a really nice gesture that was very much appreciated.  I gave him copies of The Standard #1 and #2 as well, thanked him again, and made my exit with my three signed comics, happy at meeting one of my fave writers twice.

Returning to the ComixTribe booth for a little while, I was pleased to meet Cesar Feliciano, the artist of The Red Ten, who had stopped by our table to help out for the day.  He also drew up a great artist edition cover of The Standard #1, which I was very pleased with!

Heading back to the Midtown Comics booth, a little after the end of the signing, I figured Scott would have left my comics behind the table for me to collect.  But to my surprise, he was actually waiting on the floor for me to come back to give them to me himself!  Again, the guy’s a total class act.  He rummaged through his backpack, and produced my pile of books – Voodoo Heart, Severed #1, Severed #3, Swamp Thing #2, Detective Comics #871, Detective Comics #875, Detective Comics #879 and another copy of Batman #1 – all signed.  In a funny moment, he almost accidentally gave me a copy of Batman #2 a week before its release, and had to take it back upon realising his mistake.  To be honest, I kinda regret not really saying anything to him but “Thanks” a few times when I could have been asking all kinds of questions about what lies in store in the future for some of my favorite books – I’d had a question all prepared about his future plans for The Joker that totally slipped from my brain – but I was just too chuffed for anything to come to mind.  Scott told me he’d read my comics, we said goodbye, and I left VERY happy, having met one of my fave writers thrice!

Perhaps I was energised by my shamanic encounter with Super-Snyder, but whatever the cause, when I returned to the ComixTribe booth, all of a sudden I found that I’d at last got into a proper selling rhythm.  Things started to take a real upswing where, after a quiet stretch, I picked a random person passing by through the crowd, pointed at them, and shouted, “YOU!”  I asked them to come over to the table, and we ended up selling them a ComixTribe package.  But the real turning point was a seemingly small detail, where I found that moving from sitting behind my table to standing in front of it made a huge difference.  Perhaps it was a body language thing, where I was now more closely connected to the passing trade, but for whatever reason, all of a sudden I was much more successful in grabbing people’s attention and bringing them over to the table.  And we started getting a much higher ratio of people actually buying something once we’d attracted them to the table.

Tyler, Joe, me (in a pose oddly like a Vegas showgirl) and Cesar.

Something that I discovered was a real boon to my salesmanship was my Scottish accent.  Tpically, I hate my voice, and I have come to accept that in America a lot of people just won’t understand a word I’m saying.  But it seemed to really work a charm in getting people interested in our comics.  I joked that it was because people couldn’t hear me when I said, “Hey, want to check out some cool comics?”  As a result, they’d come closer and get me to repeat myself, by which point I’d reeled them in and had them in position to get a closer look at my comics.  Whatever the cause, people seemed more interested because I was Scottish, and I started playing up that Scottishness more in my pitching, starting to make a bigger deal of showing people the pages of The Standard #1 featuring The Frying Scotsman – which always seemed to get a laugh.  Even more shockingly, my accent seemed to get me some kind of sex appeal!  Apparently my grating Glaswegian brogue sounds exotic to New Yorker ears, and it seemed like the number of women we sold books to surged on the Saturday.  I was getting the flirty body language and everything – is this what it feels like to be a “playa”?  At one point, I gave the whole ComixTribe pitch to one young lady, and when I was done, I asked her if she was interested in any comics, but she say, “No, I just wanted to hear you talk for a bit.”  Oh my!

In a way it was a bit infuriating, business really getting going once the con was more than half over.  But better late than never!  After being absent for much of the first couple of days, and underwhelming in my selling to the point of practically being a cooler while I was around, I was relieved that I’d found an approach to selling that worked for me, and helped me to start pulling my weight at the table more.  I even earned the nickname “The Sellin’ Scotsman” from Tyler, which was nice.  I was really pleased to start seeing copies of The Standard shifting en masse, and I managed to sell people on the other titles on the ComixTribe lineup as well.

Towards the end of the con day, I took a walk down to Artist’s Alley, and met Greg Capullo.  I’ve been a big fan of his work on Batman, but my main incentive for introducing myself was my knowledge that Capullo is the hero of Jonathan Rector, my friend and artist of The Standard.  I got Greg to sign two copies of Batman #1 – one for myself and one for Jon – and gave him copies of The Standard, explaining how much the artist was a fan of his work.  So perhaps Greg Capullo is now a fan of your work too, Jon!

I’m pleased to report we were selling comics right up to closing time, and a little beyond.  Saturday was a huge success for ComixTribe, and the best day of NYCC thus far.  My one disappointment of the day was not getting into the after-hours Black Dynamite panel.  Infuriatingly, there was a Dragonball Z panel in the same room immediately after it, so I arrived to a massive queue, populated mostly by young anime fans who quite clearly had no interest in Black Dynamite.  I was in line with a couple of other Black Dynamite fans, and once it became clear that we weren’t going to get into the panel, things started getting nasty.  These other guys started getting into a confrontation with one of the NYCC volunteers, who didn’t help the situation much by replying with, “Well, if you wanted into this panel you should have been queueing from Avengers this afternoon.”  In my repressed British way, I wasn’t up for getting into a fight when it was quite clear that no amount of shouting would get me a seat in this panel, so I told the increasingly flustered NYCC rep that I appreciated it wasn’t his fault, and dejectedly left the Javits Center.

After grabbing a quick Subway for dinner (so much for making the most of New York’s cuisine) I met up with Joe, and we headed out to the Indy Comics After-Party, an invite-only event at Blaggards Pub we had managed to score invitations to.  However, we didn’t see anyone there that we knew or recognised, and with a live band playing, the music was even louder than at Tempest a couple of nights earlier, so loud neither of us could hear a word the other was saying.  After a while, Joe and I gave up and headed out, relocating to the quieter, nicer Twins Bar and talking about politics and other subjects for a bit.  Oooh, I’m such a party animal!

Of course, Spider-Man loves NY.

Overall, Saturday was an amazing day.  I got to meet some great comics people, ComixTribe and The Standard really started to gain momentum, and the whole day was just good fun.  I was already starting to feel sad that the con – and my time in New York – would soon be over.

NEXT: An ode to cosplayers.

My Week in New York: Thursday

It had been fun seeing New York City, but with the arrival of Thursday it was time to get down to business: New York Comic Con was upon us.  After another 6:30am rise and a hearty breakfast to set me up for the day, I headed down on the brief walk to the Javits Convention Center.  I had scoped the place out on my first day in NYC, and it had seemed pretty barren, an empty vessel waiting for a sense of purpose.  But what a difference a few days make.  Now, the Javits Center was getting ready for New York Comic Con!

The Javits Center

Once I arrived, I discovered that Tyler James and Joe Mulvey – my booth partners, who would be bringing the tables, chairs and our supply of comics – had been held up in that notorious New York traffic.  And since we needed Tyler, who’d booked the booth, to get our exhibitor passes, I had to just sit around in the foyer for a while.  But eventually, the rest of the gang arrived, and while Joe seeked out a parking place outside, I got to meet the mighty Tyler James, glorious leader of ComixTribe, for the first time.  I always get a kick meeting people I’ve talked to online in person, and so far I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not had an experience of someone I thought was alright over MSN or Skype turning out to be a weirdo in person (probably because I’M the one who’s the weirdo in person), and Tyler was no exception, turning out to be as smart and cool in the real world as the virtual one.

There was a brief scare where it seemed like our passes had been lost, or accidentally given to someone else, but thankfully it was resolved before too long, and we were kitted out with the Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket that is a Comic-Con exhibitor pass.  Meeting up with Joe and his friend outside, we went through the arduous task of dragging our heavy bundles of stock and equipment from the car park to our booth on the show floor.  An interesting aside: over the course of the week, I only noticed that the escalator from the foyer up to the show floor had stopped working on two occasions.  The first was on this day, meaning we had to haul all our stuff up it like it was a regular flight of stairs.  The second was on Sunday, when we had to haul all our stuff back down it again.  Typical.

Another problem emerged once we located our corner booth just near Artist’s Alley.  Namely, that it wasn’t a corner booth.  We were located quite inconveniently next to what I can only call a massive China exhibit.  If that sounds vague, it’s because that’s the impression they gave.  It was this collection of 8 connected booths that ran in a big line next to where our booth was, all with the words CHINA written on top of them, but each with its own hazey subtitle, like “Skyworks Technologies” or “Guangzhou Daley Media Co” or something similarly uninformative.  And these booths were typically partitioned off, and often empty.  And I don’t just mean no con-goers stopped by – though people rarely did – I mean that even the exhibitors themselves were barely there.  It must have been an expensive bit of real estate, but obviously these guys must have had a lot of money to throw around to book all that space then not really use it.  And the problem with these massive booths was that they jutted right out onto the floor, far beyond the reach of our table, meaning anyone walking past them was automatically cast at a distance away from our table, breaking that essential passing trade connection.  On the plus side, I pointed out, we were at a good place to catch people headed to the nearby bathroom.

The ComixTribe gang set up the booth while I... take pictures.

I have to say, it was really exciting setting up the ComixTribe booth.  Sure, I got a little thrill laying out my comics at my table for the Glasgow Comic Fair, but this was on a whole other level.  Organising not just The Standard, but the rest of ComixTribe’s diverse lineup, reminded me of the stellar company I keep being a part of ComixTribe.  The absolute best thing about The Standard being published through ComixTribe is that I get to be a part of such a fantastic roster of talent, and an incredible lineup of titles.  I had already read and loved Runners, Tears of the Dragon and Epic, but once the booth was set up, I was able to sit down and read Joe Mulvey’s Scam, and The Red Ten by Tyler James and Cesar Feliciano.  Both are just great comics, which I highly recommend checking out if you possibly can.  Here’s the thing that helped me a lot while pitching all the ComixTribe titles over the weekend: I didn’t have to be dishonest in my shilling.  My enthusiasm and passion for each of these comics and their quality was absolutely genuine.

With the booth ready, we all headed out to a local deli for lunch.  And, like the sophisticated artistic souls we are, we spent the entire meal sharing puke, shit and fart stories.  Classy, my kinda people.  Afterwards, we headed back to the convention center, and I took the time to have a look around the show floor.  The layout was actually quite a lot like San Diego, only with less TV and movie booths, and more of a central focus on comics.  I also noted that Marvel had situated itself far away from the rest of the comics booth, instead settling down right in the middle of the video game section.  This struck me as a bit isolationist, and because it was so far off my beaten track, I actually never visited the Marvel booth save for passing by it on my way into the show floor in the mornings.  I’d say the trifecta of the DC Comics booth, the Image booth and the Midtown Comics booth felt more like the central hub of the show floor, with the well-furnished Archaia booth situated well in amongst them.

After a while, the doors opened to the public (at least, those with 4-day VIP passes), and the first day of selling began.  In all honesty, business was a little slow on this first day.  We did have a steady flow of eyes on our table, but we had our quiet periods.  My problem was that I couldn’t get my salesmanship down.  My pitch for The Standard was overlong and clunky, and I could practically see eyes glazing over as I launched into it.  I just didn’t seem to have a good knack for it, and was grateful that the affable Joe and the super-efficient selling machine that was Tyler were there to take my slack.

Shifting from my exhibitor hat to my fan hat, I took a wander around Artist’s Alley.  The first familiar face I got to meet was Mikel Janin, the talented rising star artist of Justice League Dark.  He very kindly agreed to sign my copy of Justice League Dark #1, and we parted on what I thought was a good note.  But then I realised, to my horror, that I had given Mikel my sharpie pen, and forgotten to take it back.  Now, those who know me from work will know that I am paranoid about ensuring nobody takes it from me, and I will stand and watch people use the pens they borrow fro me to make sure they give them back when they’re done.  So I launched into this awkward moment where I had to go back to this gifted artist I admire, and politely ask him to give me my pen back.  Thankfully, my subsequent friendly Twitter chat with Mikel would suggest this faux pas was not too disastrous.

The next folks on my list were Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, the esteemed writer/artist team on cracking Western series The Sixth Gun.  Long-time followers of this blog will know I’ve devoted a lot of time to promoting this comic, reviewing the first graphic novel collection and several other subsequent issues and bestowing superlative but well-deserved praise.  I tried my best to convey this praise to the team in person, telling them that The Sixth Gun had so much content packed into each issue that every individual comic was a rewarding read in itself, and that this most definitely wasn’t a comic for trade-waiters.  I then gave them a trade to sign.

But perhaps most exciting of all for me on this day was the chance to meet Jason Aaron.  Regular readers may know that I have gushed about The Sixth Gun, but they’ll also know that I’ve lavished numerous dissertation-length odes of devotion to the seminal Verigo crime series Scalped, a title I’ve not been in shy in saying I’d rank as definitely the best comic on shelves today, and well on its way into entering the canon of the all-time greats.  Considering all this, getting to meet Scalped writer Jason Aaron was one of the things I was most excited about going into the New York Comic Con.  And I’m pleased to say he didn’t disappoint.  This is something that has struck me about all the folks in comics I’ve been fortunate enough to meet over the past couple of years: they’re all nice guys.  It must be really deflating to meet one of your heroes, and they’re a jerk.  But the comics creators I’ve had the chance to talk to have all been friendly, and keen to chat with their fans, and Jason Aaron was no exception.

At first, Jason bamboozled me a bit: when I produced Scalped #25 and told him that, after much painful deliberation, I had decided this was my favorite single issue of the series, he asked me the dreaded question, “Why is this one your favorite?”  I garbled at him in incomprehensible Glaswegian for a while as I struggled to come up with a good answer (I failed), and then I introduced myself as the writer of the Studying Scalped columns he had kindly linked to on his blog.  It was great that Jason knew who I was enough to thank me for the columns I’d written.  I also told him I was the guy who’d asked him to bring along Scalped #3, #15 and #16 to the con, and he responded by producing them from his backpack.  Getting these elusive comics given to me by the writer himself!  I was ready to pay double the cover price or more, but Jason amazingly said I could just take them for free!  What a classy guy.  With these issues in my collection, I was now the proud owner of every Scalped single issue save for issue #1.  I tried to fire a couple of quickfire Scalped questions at Jason before leaving.  Will there be any Scalped deluxe hardcovers in future?  Probably not.  Will there be any Scalped retrospective panels at San Diego 2012 or next year’s NYCC?  Again, probably not, but Jason did mention I could take part in some kind of series of closing interviews at the end of the series, which would be amazing.  I gave Jason copies of The Standard #1 and #2, then gushed some more about how Scalped was one of the greatest comics of all time, before finally making my exit.

In terms of stuff I bought, I was able to grab almost all the issues of Zot! my friend Jamie Fairlie was missing from his collection, and I picked up two T-shirts from DC’s Graphitti Designs booth: a Swamp Thing T-shirt, and something I’ve wanted for a long time: a grey Batman with a black Batman logo.  That’s right, none of that “black T-shirt with the black bat logo inside a yellow circle” movie bullshit for me, I’m a comics purist, baby!  And a nerd.

Back at the ComixTribe booth, Steve – the friendly fan from Jim Hanley’s – stopped by to say hello.  He had read and enjoyed The Standard #1 after buying it at the signing, so was here to get his hands on The Standard #2.  I have to say, this happened a few times over the course of the con, and it was the biggest compliment.  When someone buys and reads the first issue one day, and takes the time to come back the next day, tell you they loved it, and buy issue #2?  That’s quite possibly the most rewarding thing about writing these comics.  It’s a great feeling.  Steve also ended up buying the rest of ComixTribe’s lineup too, which was great.  Perhaps our first convert of NYCC.  Thanks, Steve!

Tyler and I at the ComixTribe booth.

Once the NYCC preview night wrapped up, I stopped back at my hotel to make a quick change and drop off my heavy satchel bag (this bag, filled with books I wanted signed, was the bane of much of my travels during the con), before heading down to Tempest Bar for ComixTribe’s Drink & Draw event.  Food was provided in the form of giant pizzas brought in from a nearby pizzeria.  Yes, that’s right, pizza again.  And these ones were MASSIVE, dwarving even the oversized slices from Pronto Pizza.  Quite possibly the biggest pizza I’ve seen in my life.

Drink & Draw started off quiet, but once it got going we ended up with a good crowd of comic creators at the event.  Now, I say “quiet”, but what I actually mean is that deafeningly loud music was banging away at all times, and it seemed like the louder I tried to speak, the louder the music got.  See, I just don’t get this.  I see a bar as a place meant for socialising, so while ambient music is fine, what’s the point of cranking up the volume so loud you can barely communicate?  And remember, I was trying to make myself understood to a bunch of New Yorkers with a thick Scottish accent as it was, so I was already fighting an uphill battle.

I did get to have a few good conversations, though.  In particular, I got to have some lengthy chats with Rich Douek, regular ComixTribe commenter, and writer of an intriguing title called Gutter Magic that I was able to get my hands on at NYCC.  And I also got one of Tyler’s friends to draw up an image for one of the artist edition covers of The Standard, which was greatly appreciated.

After hanging out for a few hours, I took my leave, feeling a little sick from the watered-down Coke and oversized pizza.  But it was a good kind of sick.  The New York Comic Con was off to a great start.  And it was only going to get better.

NEXT: I go to far too many panels.

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: Nightwing #1

This review will likely be short, as I don’t really have much to say about Nightwing #1, bad or good.  Based on how much I’ve liked Dick Grayson’s portrayal throughout his run as Batman, and factoring in my enjoyment of Kyle Higgins’ work with the character in Gates of Gotham, I figured I might as well give Dick a try (enough with the dirty laughs, you pervs!) as he returns to the role of Nightwing in this new series for the DC Relaunch.

Kyle Higgins gives us some pretty good writing here.  It ticks the boxes of appropriate character development for Dick, and the story offers an adequate balance of characterisation and action, but the story doesn’t do anything to stand out.  The writing of Dick’s voiceover throughout the issue reads like someone giving a second-hand account of some of the masterful stuff Scott Snyder was doing over the course of his Detective Comics run, but not quite capturing the essence of it in the details.  But the idea is inherently interesting enough for it to still prove engaging even when not executed to full effect.

The artwork of Eddy Barrows faces a similar problem of performing competently enough but not really offering anything that stands out.  There are some stylish layouts on display, but they are overshadowed by some of the more ambitious stuff other artists such as Yanick Paquette, Travel Foreman and of course J.H. Williams III have done over the past couple of weeks.  And I’m not in love with small-headed character designs, either.  The flat colors of Rod Reis further dull the visual impact of the comic.  I will say the double-page spread during the opening sequence looks fantastic, though.

And, to be honest, that’s really all I have to say about Nightwing.  It didn’t really leave much of an impression on me either way, and so I didn’t find enough right or wrong with this to elaborate further.  Hardcore fans of Dick Grayson might enjoy it, but there are too many other books doing more to grab my attention for this to really stand out from the crowd.