Friday, July 18, 2008

MORE DARK KNIGHT: I Grade All The Current BATMAN Comics! Plus: More On WATCHMEN.

Ahhhhh ... Dark Knight tomorrow, baby. I'm actually almost sick of all the hype at this point (to which I have, of course, been contributing). Well, not sick of it, per se, it's just ... I want to see the friggin' movie already.

Although, the MASSIVE FIREBALL OF AWESOMENESS that is the trailer for WATCHMEN is almost enough to distract me from all things Dark Knight. I mean ... did you SEE that trailer? The artistry, the action, the look, the feel ... it looks like somehow, someway, we may be in business with a legit Watchmen movie - something that no one thought we'd EVER see. I can only wonder what Alan Moore would think if he were to catch a glimpse. I'm sure he'd scoff, roll his eyes, curse Hollywood, etc. ... but you have to think that after all that, the old codger might just have a little gleam in his eye and the slightest hint of a smile ... how could one not after seeing your life's masterwork brought to life on film with such reverance?

I remember that, as I was getting into comics, I'd kind of hear Watchmen discussed in hushed tones. It was like this secret, sacred text that the world at large didn't know but that, to comic readers, was essentially the holy grail of the medium, the epitomy of what superhero comics could be, and the catalyst for the modern age of comics. Of course, a my interest began to gravitate from the simple stories of regular comics into the mature-readers-only realm occupied by names like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, I knew that Watchmen would be a must-read.

I don't think I've ever been as enthralled while reading something as I was while reading Watchmen. Immediately after reading it I knew it was the best thing I had ever read, and it still ranks up there alongside any work of literature, nonfiction, or graphic fiction that I've read. It's a work that I'll pull out every so often just to re-read a certain chapter, because it's one of those stories so packed with detail and nuance that literally every time you read it there's something new to discover.

As much as the comic book stands on its own, you've got to admit: there's a certain satisfaction in seeing these characters brought to life on film. Not to mention, there's the satisfacton in seeing this increasingly mainstream yet still somewhat cultish graphic novel explode into the popular conciousness, now plastered on magazine covers, online, and everywhere else. The amazing story that those of us in the know have loved for years is about to get on just about everyone's radar - but we'll have been there from the beginning. And if the movie is faithful, if it's done right, well, it will be all the more satisfying. If he trailer is any indication, we're in for one hell of a ride.

DARK KNIGHT: The Current State of BATMAN in the Comics ...

- So even as DC Comics is on the verge of having its biggest comics-to-film smash hit to date, I always like to pay tribute to the medium that made all these amazing characters and stories possible in the first place. After all, while most people have had to wait their whole lives to experience an epic Batman vs. Joker showdown of this caliber, us comics fans have already gotten to enjoy the likes of The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and all the other great Batman stories that have been published over the years - simply because we are open-minded people who love the medium and the characters and don't feel the need to wait for Hollywood to tell us what is and isn't cool. Nope, us fanboys have already known for years.

Now, it that to say that all comics are created equal? No way, man. Batman as a character has been pretty fortunate though - throughout his history, he's been handled by some of the most legendary writers and artists ever to grace the medium. Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Denny O'Neil, Ed Brubacker, and Grant Morrison. Bill Finger, Dick Sprang, Neil Adams, Marshall Rogers, Jim Aparo, Brian Bolland, and Jim Lee. But of course, there have been plenty of crappy Batman comics published over the years as well. So right now, of all the various monthly titles that feature Batman and his supporting characters - which comics kick ass and which disappoint?

My overall take is that the state of the Batman comics right now is strong, but there's room for improvement to be sure. Batman under Grant Morrison has been a trip, but after his RIP storyline is complete I'd love to see a return to more traditional, character-driven Batman stuff along the lines of my favorite runs in the 90's and early 00's. The recent Ressurection of Ra's Al Ghul storyline was kind of a throwback in that regard, but it never quite came together as well as it could have, and really varied in quality from issue to issue. I'd love to see the supporting titles like Robin and Nightwing and Birds of Prey feature some real A-list writers and artists as well - one area where DC has often struggled is in keeping up the quality of its second-tier books. Now that they've lost a mainstay like Chuck Dixon, they've got a huge void to fill on a few of the Bat-Titles. Still, when I pick up an issue of Dini's Detective Comics, I'm reminded of how much Batman comics can kick ass when they're done right. For more in-depth reviews, check below.

Here's the rundown:


- At the moment, 'Tec is clearly the crown jewel in the Batman comics stable. Writer Paul Dini, who made his mark as the creative force behind Batman: The Animated Series, has delivered month in and month out some great, self-contained stories that really feel timeless and classic, while maintaining the darker edge of the modern comics. Dini has introduced some surprising angles as well. He's made The Riddler into a great supporting character - a semi-reformed criminal who has now become a detective-for-hire, and who is eager to beat Batman at his own game. Dini has used one of his favorite DC characters, the magical hero Zatanna, to great effect. He's fleshed out her history with Bruce Wayne and wrote a great two-parter where she and Batman take on the Joker. Dini has also introduced a few new villains as well, including a new version of Scarface who has a stunning femme fatale as his puppet master. Dini's run has been marred by occasional fill-in issues that disrupt its flow and that have been less than spectacular, but overall, when Dini is there and on his game, along with solid artists like Don Kramer and Dustin Nguyen, Detective is a consistently great read. That same simple-yet-satisfying style of The Animated Series, upgraded to fit the world of the comics.

My Grade: A -


- Right now, Batman is in the middle of an epic yet controversial run from the warped mind of writer Grant Morrison - a run which is at once mind-blowing and confusing, with an ongoing story that's remarkably layered and ambitious and yet possibly trying to tackle too much for it's own good. Morrison has been writing Batman in a very unconventional style - surreal, dream-like, and non-linear. And everything to this point has been slowly building to the currently running Batman: RIP storyline, which has intrigued readers with promises that it will shake the foundation of the Batman mythos. This far, I've enjoyed Batman: RIP, but I've been enjoying it despite barely understanding what the hell is going on. There's some intriguing ideas in there - a Batman who is slowly losing his mind while being hunted by a conspiracy out to destroy him, the implication that Martha and Thomas Wayne are not who we always thought them to be, the idea that Alfred of all people may be hiding something - it's all interesting, but so far the story is just a tiny bit incoherant. It may be that it all comes together brilliantly, and I can't deny that this one has a huge buzz factor to it, but right now I have to say that Batman is kind of a fun but confusing cluster.

My Grade: B

- Designed to supplant the older Legends of the Dark Knight series, Batman Confidential is a series with various storyarcs that look at different tales from throughout Batman's long and storied career. So far, the title has been a mixed bag, but in my view it's been picking up steam. Heroes writer Michael Green recently penned a really great Joker origin story, "Lovers and Madmen," that wa the best storyarc the title had seen to that point. Since then, Confidential has delivered the goods. Currently, it's in the midst of a multipart, light-hearted story that looks at the first meeting of the Barbara Gordon Batgirl and Catwoman. It's a fun romp with some sharp dialogue courtesy of Fabian Niczia (sp?), and great art from the legendary Kevin Maguire. This is a title that lives and dies by its individual storyarcs, but right now it's definitely on a roll.

My Grade: B+


- This anthology mini-series recently kicked off to capitalize on the Joker's recent obiquity, and two issues in, it's already had its ups and downs. Basically, each issue sees The Joker as a Crypt Keeper-like narrator, telling a tale of one of Batman's rogues - a different villain each issue. The first story, about the Joker himself, was nothing special. The second issue though, featured a really fun Penguin story that I enjoyed, by Jason Aaron. It remains to be seen how the rest of the issues will fare, but I do like the premise and I'm always a sucker for anthologies.

My Grade: B -


- Frank Miller. Jim Lee. Batman. It sounds like a match made in comic book heaven, but many fans were surprised that this series ended up going in a very strange direction. Rather than writing a serious and gritty Batman as seen in his own Year One, Frank Miller decided to present this version of Batman as one weird, creepy bastard, who is clearly one slice short of a sandwich. Miller's All Star Batman is a take that's dark but also satirical, and quickly had fans both laughing and scratching their heads, when Batman would say things like "I'm the god-damned Batman." Clearly, this was NOT the usual take on the character. But you know what? Once I started to see what Miller was going for here, I really got into it. This is one of the most fun comics in years - it completely pokes fun at itself and at its audience, and takes the point of view that, for a guy to dress up like a Bat, swing from rooftops, and fight crime, he's got to be slightly insane. The book comes out quarterly, so the wait between issues is nearly unbearable, but I'm always excited when a new one hits the stands - it's like nothing else out there and one of the most over-the-top, twisted, funny, and just plain wrong visions of Batman ever put to page. And even if Frank Miller's writing is a departure, Jim Lee's art is as amazing and eye-melting as ever.

My Grade: A -


- Robin was one of the first comics I began collecting as a kid, and thanks to the writing of Chuck Dixon at the time, I felt like I came to know the character of Tim Drake, aka Robin III, as if he was one of my classmates. Since Dixon's original 90's run, the Robin title has had some pretty bad years, and I always missed Dixon's spot-on characterizations and penchant for creating cool supporting characters and villains, like the teen-girl Gotham vigilante, The Spoiler. So, it was great when, several months ago, Chuck Dixon returned to Robin after a multi-year absence. While the return was a little awkward at first, I felt like Dixon only recently began to hit his stride. Quickly, Tim Drake once again felt like the same character who had been one of my favorites as a kid, and, to the delight of fans everywhere, Dixon revived the presumed-dead Spoiler, whose poorly-written demise was the source of lots of fan outrage. Sure, the art by Chris Batista has been an odd match for this title, but overall the book's been solid. But man, just as I was excited to see how Dixon would tie-in Robin to the ongoing Batman RIP event, he has announced that he is leaving the title, and in fact he is parting ways with DC as a while due to creative differences. This abrupt departure is a little worrying, and I hope that someone takes over who has a similar talent for writing the character.

My Grade: B+ (though this could quickly change ...)


- This is another Chuck Dixon title that is going to suffer from the writer's abrupt departure from DC Comics. As with Robin, Dixon took a little while to find his footing, but has delivered some pretty entertaining adventures, with the same kind of no-nonsense action that made his run on Birds of Prey stand out, and realistic, sharp artwork from Julian Lopez. Outsiders has struggled to find its identity since it relaunched, and went from being a Judd Winnick-written team book about Nightwing and a motley crue of uncoventional, proactive heroes to a covert-ops hero team led from afar by Batman. Dixon managed to pen some fun adventures, the book still seemed a bit aimless - why, exactly, did Batman form this team in the first place, and why, exactly, was it needed? With holdovers from Winnick's run on the roster, the book never entirely felt like Dixon's. Now, I'm curious to see if and how it continues. I'm hoping it still has that blockbuster action movie feel, but also that it really comes out with a new purpose and reason for existing.

My Grade: B -


- Here's a title that got a much-needed shot in the arm when writer Peter Tomasi came on board. After a horrific run by Bruce Jones, Tomasi has settled into the title eaturing the former Robin and done some fun stuff with it. The title recently wrapped up a big storyline that saw Nightwing attempting to foil the latest plot of Talia Al Ghul, a strange science experiment gone wrong that put her at odds not only with Nightwing, but with the Chinese government. Tomasi has delivered solid writing and strong characterization. I do question his relocation of Nightwing to NYC - I miss the Bludhaven setting that Chuck Dixon introduced way back when, and I'm still waiting to see Nightwing get a decent supporting cast and lineup of villains. Dixon was able to create this back in the day, but since that time that sort of depth has been missing from the comic. Still, Tomasi has been strong enough, and the art by Rags Morales and Don Kramer sharp enough, that I'm willing to follow the book and see where this team goes with one of DC's most popular characters.

My Grade: B


- Birds of Prey has been lucky to have had two great, long runs by writers who got the characters and made the title one of DC's most consistently well-written. Chuck Dixon got the ball rolling, and then Gail Simone picked up the reigns and made a mark with a memorable run of her own. Since Simone left, the title has bounced back and forth between a few writers, and remarkably it's remained solid. Sean McKeever came in and did some solid stories, and for the last few months, Tony Bedard has taken over and done a nice job as well. He seems to have a solid grasp on (former Batgirl) Oracle, (former Gotham vigilante) Huntress, and (time-lost WWII hero) Lady Blackhawk, and has made Misfit, a new and potentially annoying teen character, into one of my surprise favorites. Bedard's run has thus far been a bit slow paced, and slightly hampered by tie-ins to some of DC's big crossover events, but upcoming storylines look promising, and the art by Simone-era holdover Nicolla Scott is as smooth and dynamic as ever.. I am not yet ready to place Bedard in the same category as Gail Simone, but he's kept up my enthuiasm for the title, which has been a favorite of mine for going on several years.

My Grade: B+


- Unfortunately, the news recently broke that the monthly Catwoman title is being cancelled, which in my mind is really unfortunate. After a celebrated run by Ed Brubaker, writer Will Pfeifer has quietly shaped Catwoman into one of the most consistently great books out there. Even when its tied into big DC Universe events like Salvation Run, Pfeifer has kept the quality up and brought the same style of sharp, atmospheric writing, week in and week out. Catwoman having a baby and becoming a mother could have been a disaster, but Pfeiffer, and artist David Lopez, took this idea and crafted a memorable, moving story from it. Under their watch, I really looked forward to the monthly adventures of Selina Kyle, and it's too bad the the sales of the book weren't higher. Paul Dini has promised that the character will now play a large role in Detective Comics, but it's sad to see this book go. I'd definitely recommend that you check out the trade paperback collections of the recent run.

My Grade: A -

- And that's the latest I've got for DARK KNIGHT week. I'm sure many of you have now seen the movie or will see it shortly, so feel free to post your thoughts. Tune in next time for even more Bat-goodness, and of course the big movie-review. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

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