Friday, March 13, 2009

Two new comics, 3/11/09

Longtime readers may remember that I used to post weekly new-comics roundups (I hesitated to call them "reviews") about a particular set of purchases. Between annotating Trinity and looking after a new baby, I got out of the habit of doing those.

However, this week I read two comics which, if not exactly polar opposites in terms of quality, were at least headed in different directions as far as merit was concerned. I was surprised at how much I liked one, and how much I disliked the other. Therefore, let's talk about Titans #12 and Batman: Battle For The Cowl #1.

* * *

First, though, just to be complete, I'll run down briefly the rest of Wednesday's haul. I covered Trinity #41 over at Robot 6. Batman Confidential #27 was Part 2 of the "hey, it's King Tut! In the comics!" story. It brings one of the '60s TV show's more ridiculous villains (and that's saying something) into the serious Batman comics after forty-odd years, but the story is neither goofy nor overly grim. Instead, Tut is creepy and mysterious, so much so that Batman is forced to turn to the Riddler for help. The result is an engaging mystery with snappy writing and great art.

I'll have to read back issues of Booster Gold and the Superman books to get a better idea for this week's developments (in Booster Gold #18 and Action Comics #875). I liked both fine, but each depended on the culmination of long-running plot threads. Same is true to a certain extent for Green Lantern Corps #34, although that issue was more setup than anything else.

Finally, I'm not sure how I feel about Green Arrow/Black Canary #18. It's three issues into the new writer's first arc, but he doesn't seem to have the best handle on the characters, and the "Green Arrow has a stalker" plot feels very familiar.

0n to the main event....

* * *

It's no exaggeration to say that the relaunched Titans has had its problems. In the first eleven issues and the Titans East special, the book has had a handful of different artists (and wildly divergent artistic styles). Although the writer, Judd Winick, has stayed the same, he's been criticized for failures of characterization and plotting. Next month begins "Deathtrap," a crossover with Teen Titans and Vigilante, two books I don't read. Accordingly, it would be easy for me to drop Titans, but something keeps me going.

Titans #12, guest-written by Sean McKeever, penciled by Howard Porter, inked by Wayne Faucher, and colored by Edgar Delgado, was a good example of what the title could be. Titans is essentially a revival of New Teen Titans, so it treads the dangerous ground of, say, a sequel called "fortysomething" (or, to my mind, a "Friends" reunion). At its core it must make the argument that this particular combination of characters -- Cyborg, Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy, Wonder Girl/Troia, Speedy/Red Arrow, and Kid Flash/Flash -- still works, and is still worth watching. So far Titans had been coasting on the assumption that its existence didn't need justifying.

However, this issue finds two members debating just that. Ex-member Jericho has turned evil, and since he can inhabit anyone's body and control anyone's actions, everyone else is on edge. As a result, when Donna and Roy meet for coffee, neither of them is particularly thrilled to go on like they have been. When Raven rebuffs Beast Boy's attempts at romance, he exclaims desperately that Jericho must be inside her, toying with him.

The other characters don't have quite as much to do with the Jericho plot, but they were more recognizable to me than they had been. Starfire, whose powers come from solar energy, gets a few pages to worship the sunrise in a way which is reverential, not prurient. Later in the issue, she and Donna meet at dusk for a photography lesson. Roy's conversation with Donna is sandwiched between leaving one lover (after busting up a mugging outside her window) and almost reluctantly picking up another. In a sign that he too might be leaving the team, Wally "Flash" West's only scenes are with his family, and by itself the scene doesn't really go anywhere. Finally, Cyborg's work in Titans Compound bookends the issue and sets up "Deathtrap."

I became increasingly dissatisfied with Sean McKeever's work on Teen Titans because I felt myself caring less about the characters, not more. Maybe I'm bringing too much of my own knowledge of these characters to this issue, but I found McKeever's writing here to be subtle and almost elegant in its efficiency. When Roy returns to his one-night-stand's apartment after fighting the muggers, she's eager for breakfast (and more), but the only thing he says to her is that he just came back to get his wallet. McKeever lets the art (and especially the coloring) speak for itself with regard to Starfire's sunrise-worship. Similarly, Starfire's conversation with Donna consists of the simple, direct sentences which old friends use as shorthand. Probably the clunkiest bits of dialogue are the ones with the most romantic tension, between ex-lovers Donna and Roy and would-be lovers Raven and Beast Boy.

On the whole I enjoyed the art of Howard Porter and Wayne Faucher, augmented by Edgar Delgado's colors. Porter can't quite settle on Roy's hairstyle, which makes him look like Wally; and his layouts of Raven's head over the "montage" of the last few pages doesn't quite work. Still, Porter and Faucher produce clean, readable work. It's stylized somewhat, but not to the point of distraction; and except for Wally and Roy it allows the characters to have distinct personalities.

Overall I was quite happy with Titans #12. It's the kind of issue which highlights this sort of book's soap-opera elements without swamping the reader in them. I thought all of the subplots touched on here were explained adequately, so as not to mystify a new reader. I'm curious about the next issue, and that's the kind of feeling a serialized comic book should produce.

* * *

Naturally, Batman: Battle for the Cowl #1, which was written and penciled by Tony Daniel, inked by Sandu Florea, and colored by Ian Hannin, is something else entirely. BFTC #1 drops the reader into the middle of a Gotham City gone insane. Because Batman is Teh Dedd, all the gangs and super-criminals are battling for turf. Trying to hold everything together is a motley crew of Bat-sociates, organized by Nightwing and Batgirl (but mostly by Nightwing, as Batgirl gets maybe one panel in this issue).

But soft! Whither goest yon red-eyed wraith with the Wayne-issue Batarangs? 'Tis a new Batman, taking out a trio of thugs wearing clown masks left over from The Dark Knight before Robin and the Squire (the British version of Robin) can get to them. This Batman knows enough about How Not To Be Seen to slip past experienced crimefighters, but they know he's Batman because, along with those Batarangs, he leaves helpful notes which say "I Am Batman."

And that, in a nutshell, is BFTC #1's main problem: its apocalyptic setting is based on there being No Batman, but in the first few pages it introduces I-Am-Batman. What's more, even though the streets are full of bad guys battling SWAT teams, Gotham is apparently safe enough for ordinary people to gather into mobs, just to drive home the point that society is breaking down. Granted, I've never been part of a city in turmoil, but it seems to me that if the streets aren't safe, is it really such a good idea to go out into the streets in large groups to highlight this lack of safety?

Still, as always, Gotham gets the local bureaucracy it deserves; because wouldn't you know it, everyone in Arkham Asylum -- the Joker, Poison Ivy, the Scarecrow, that guy with the shark-teeth -- is currently in low-security buses (buses!) while the Asylum is being fumigated. (Actually, narration explains that the Asylum is being decontaminated after the Black Glove's shenanigans.) This sets up the dramatic return of Black Mask, who hijacks the convoy and blows up Arkham Asylum.

That's about it for setup: new Batman, mayhem in the streets, super-crooks on the loose. In other hands it might be pretty exciting. However, under Tony Daniel, BFTC #1 is overwritten, uninspired, crowded, and generally just a lot of sound and fury. From the very first panel, when Daniel started with an establishing "Gotham City" caption and then had Robin narrate four sentences later that yes, they were in Gotham City, I knew it would be tough going. (I was willing to overlook Robin saying "Squire and I" when it should have been "and me.") I've mentioned some of the nonsensical plot elements already, but they're worth repeating. Instead of a city filled with protesters, gangs, cops, and supervillains, why not a ghost town of empty streets, distant fires, and a general air of hopelessness? Instead of Black Mask co-opting the Arkham residents by hijacking their bus convoy, why not show how these master criminals each attempting to escape? BFTC #1 is so concerned with getting all its ducks in a row that it never thinks about the ducks themselves.

Moreover, BFTC saves its worst element for last, in the form of Bruce Wayne's and Talia al Ghul's son Damian. Grant Morrison gave Damian -- who, if memory serves, grew up alongside the League of Assassins -- a bratty bad attitude and a mean sense of entitlement. Here, though, he's a posturing little kid whose facade crumbles, and literally screams for Mommy, when faced with Killer Croc and Poison Ivy. Morrison's Damian wouldn't just take this kid's lunch money, he'd make him eat it.

Daniel doesn't explain who Damian is, though, similarly failing to give a hypothetical new reader any information on the Knight, the Squire, or any of the several other superheroes -- some, like Black Canary, the Birds of Prey, and Wildcat, only tangentially related to Batman -- who flit through this issue's panels. I can live with assuming that everyone knows Nightwing's relation to Batman, but Robin's reference to "my father's costume" seemed to come out of left field, even knowing that Bruce adopted Tim three years ago.

All in all, Battle for the Cowl #1 is a story outline in comic-book form, filling a spot on DC's production schedule until everything settles down in June. I realize that the two main Batman books have had their own scheduling problems lately, and Robin, Nightwing, and Birds Of Prey were canceled to make room for the post-BFTC lineup, but considering the events of this issue makes me wish even more that the storyline had been serialized at least across Batman and Detective. Not only could it have built suspense (the Arkham inmates have to be moved! The police might strike!) over a few weeks, it could have pulled all of these elements into a more coherent narrative. Instead, BFTC looks like an exercise in Here's What Happened, a process-oriented miniseries in danger of being ignored.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

From bad to ... actually, not so bad?

This may be the week which gets me back into weekly-comics-roundup mode.

This week I bought both Battle For The Cowl #1 and Titans #12.

One of those was really pretty decent.

More later.
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