Batgirl Volume 1 Review

Resharing a review of a favorite comic of mine I wrote on Goodreads before this blog existed. My opinion stands so this is presented without edits/updates:

 

This trade collects issues 1-7 of Brian Q. Miller’s Batgirl series.

Batgirl starts in the shadow of the events of Batman:RIP. Bruce Wayne is dead (for the time being anyway) and the various members of the “Bat-Family” are dealing with the fallout. For Stephanie Brown, this means trying to give up wearing the bat emblem and live a normal life. This doesn’t really work for her. She ends up taking the Batgirl costume from Cassandra Cain (who is successfully leaving the bat in her past) and continuing the fight in her own way. This doesn’t necessarily thrill anyone else…

 

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As presented here, Stephanie is a fantastic character. In over her head, but embracing it and refusing to give up because something inside just won’t let her. Her journey to make the Batgirl identity her own is well developed, comical at times, and a lot of fun to follow along with.

Stephanie is given a wonderful supporting cast, and watching their interactions with her and their relationships evolve is a real treat. Even though they are established characters from other series, one of the most impressive things about Batgirl is how well it reads on it’s own. It certainly helps if you have previous knowledge of Oracle, Damian, “Dick Grayson Batman,” etc., but Miller presents all the characters well enough that it’s not really needed.

One last compliment I’d like to give is to the artist. The art is outstanding and contains a ton of little touches that enhance the story (such as some of great panels of Stephanie next to Batman or a villain that clearly show their size advantage over her, something often glossed over in comics).

Astro City: Life in the Big City (Volume 1) Review

Why would a man who could fly dream of flying?
What’s news in a world where anything can happen?
What should a small time crook do with the greatest of all secrets?
What is it that defines home?
How would our lives look to an outsider?
Is there time for superheroes to take a night off?

 

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Life in the Big City collects Astro City vol. 1 issues 1-6. This is the complete original miniseries.

 

A tad over 20 years ago, Kurt Busiek introduced the world to Astro City. It was his attempt to tell stories of depth in the medium of superhero comics, as both a celebration of them and to push the boundries of what they were capable of. In his own words from the prologue: “We’ve been taking apart the superhero for ten years or more; it’s time to put it back together and wind it up, see what it’ll do.”

What it did was create wonderful stories in a world of heroes, that answer the question above and tons more like them. This is not a comic about a hero – it’s a comic about all of them. Most of the six standalone stories here star a different character, from heroes to criminals to bystanders. This is a comic about life as much as anything else.

Astro City was an enormous undertaking. Busiek did not want to limit his stories to a single perspective, nor establish a setting that felt hollow or could change to suit events. He created an entire world to explore, with fully realized geography, denizens of all types, and depth and consequences to the stories he tells there. There is a full history to this world, which we get wondrous glimpses of here and there until later trades fill us in. The careful groundwork set up here connects to and is built upon by all the future trades. All the stories (including the individual ones here) read fine alone, but together they have amazing depth and resonance.

Since he was creating an examination of heroes, Busiek used many familiar archetypes. You will see similarities between Samaritan and Superman, Winged Victory and Wonder Woman, etc. But to equate them or dismiss Astro City’s heroes as imitations would be a mistake. Even while using the archetypical nature of these characters as a point of discovery, Busiek makes them compelling, complex people in their own right.

The consistent art is also a strong positive. Alex Ross provides his usual astounding work for the covers, and the interiors are all Brent Anderson. Anderson’s art has a unique style and can take some getting used to. It’s not quite as crisp as the typical comic art, but it suits the stories extremely well and his habit of leaving some details a little obscured pays off beautifully when the scene requires more detail (which he provides in amazing fashion – emotion comes across strongly from his characters). Personally I love it, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Life in the Big City is the start of a truly phenomenal comic and should be read by any comic book fan. The most impressive part is that Astro City would get even better in the second trade…

Gotham Academy Volume 2 Review

Gotham Academy is not a normal school, and even there Olive Silverlock is not a normal student. But with a like minded group of inquisitive misfits, Olive investigates secrets regarding both the school and her own past.

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There’s no way around this: volume 2 of Gotham Academy was quite disappointing. After six atmospheric and fun issues in volume 1 that established a cast of quirky characters and several intriguing mysteries, the pacing just completely falls apart in this installment and the story collapses under its own weight.

The phenomenal cliffhanger from the end of volume 1 is blown off in a single issue with the featured hero acting incredibly out of character and ham-handedly isolated to interacting with just a single member of GA’s established core cast. I actually expected it to be revealed as an imaginary sequence and would have preferred that given the tone and characterization inconsistencies. So much potential wasted.

After that we properly refocus on Olive, but the tension and slow build of the first six issues are replaced with reveal after reveal with no lead up and far too little explanation. The developments are interesting, but everything from secrets about Olive’s past to relationship developments and conflicts among the cast to various secret agendas and schemes are all thrown at the reader too quickly for any real emotional impact or for anything to truly click and resonate. Even with my extensive familiarity of Batman mythos it was a chore to follow all the implications and name-drops, and someone reading GA in isolation would be totally lost.

It’s a shame because Olive and her struggles are intriguing hooks to the book, and other things ranging from the diverse personalities of the support cast to the vivd yet atmospheric art all make me want to like this more than I do. But in a single volume the comic has gone from a mysterious, foreboding adventure with touches of humor and a pace that fosters reader curiosity to crash-TV style “shock of the month” storytelling that doesn’t allow anything to fully develop and feels like a couple of years worth of plots and twists have been stuffed into six issues.

What a reversal. I still love the concept and some of the characters, and “Calamity” isn’t horrible by any means, but neither is this even remotely the same comic I started reading in “Welcome to Gotham Academy.” Don’t know if I’m up to continuing, as while I am still interested in seeing how things turn out for Olive I don’t feel I know enough detail about what happened during this volume, let alone having the framework to process the next batch of info dumps. We’ll see I guess.

Arkham Asylum: Living Hell Review

This trade collects the entire Arkham Asylum: Living Hell miniseries (issues #1-6).

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To call the main characters of Living Hell even “third-string” Batman villains would be generous, but Dan Slott reminds us that characters don’t have to be popular to be interesting. Across six issues he builds a compelling tale of the world’s worst nuthouse.

If you dislike supernatural elements creeping into Batman stories or require the Dark Knight himself as the focus, this won’t be for you. It’s also extremely creepy in tone and fairly graphic – I would normally expect something like this to be under the Vertigo imprint. Even with the title “Living Hell” I wasn’t expecting something this dark (especially from Slott, who is more well known for his comedic ability).

But those who can handle the elements mentioned above will find Living Hell well worth the read. Things tie together surprisingly but reasonably, horrific events tie directly to the plot and character arcs, and it was all engrossing enough that I couldn’t stop reading until I was finished.

Lucifer Season 1 Review

“You make a mockery of everything divine.”

“Thank you.”

 

Lucifer Morningstar has grown tired of “playing a part in his father’s play” and left hell to “vacation” in the mortal world. Now amusingly set up in the City of Angels as the owner of an exclusive nightclub, his adventures of indulgence are about to be interrupted by a callback to his old duties: a murderer needs to be punished.

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Lucifer starts with the general idea of the DC comic of the same name and immediately breaks off into different territory. While it’s debatable if a more “faithful” adaptation would have been suitable and/or better for a tv series, what’s here works surprisingly well. Tom Ellis is a delightfully playful Lucifer, which anchors the show excellently. He’s charismatic and a horrible influence at the same time and wrapped up in a thoroughly amusing bundle, but still conveys a curiosity and internal conflict that shows room for growth. And of course equally important to the part is his phenomenal ability to really channel anger, rage, and a dangerous edge convincingly when needed.

The writers balance Lucifer’s unusual partnership with a local homicide detective and the associated crime of the week structure with a strong overarching story that shows real character development and intrigue over the course of the season. The mythology is carefully built and slowly revealed in bits and pieces. Lucifer is given depth of character, along with legitimate gripes with his former life that underlie his issues and actions, that adds layers and plenty of themes and dilemmas for the viewer to get caught up in to the show.

Like the approach, the series’ success is two-fold. The individual episodes stand well as isolated stories, providing decent mysteries and reasonably accessible points of introduction. But beyond that is an amazing cast inhabiting compelling characters caught in the ripple effects of Lucifer’s actions and their consequences.

The acting, atmosphere, and little dramatic touches combine to make the first season of Lucifer an engaging journey that feels complete yet ends with a big development that will no doubt echo through season 2. This certainly is not the Vertigo comic of the same name, but anyone willing to go along in the direction this series takes the same core concept will find a dark, intriguing, and yes, entertaining journey.

This show features the devil himself consider his morality, which is a philosophical avenue well worth exploring.

 

The Flash Episodes 1 & 2 Review

“My name is Barry Allen, and I’m the fastest man alive.”

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Finally got a chance to try DC’s critically acclaimed Flash series, and it’s off to an amazing start. Barry’s origin is told in a way that not only establishes numerous important supporting characters, but firmly illustrates who Barry was BEFORE he became the Flash, so the viewers have a point of reference and can fully relate to what he’s going through. It’s vital to getting people emotionally invested, and done to perfection.

In addition to sharing his origin and setting up the series, the pilot has a jaw dropping epilogue which adds a ton of layers to the show and sets up ominous overtones that continue into episode 2 and look to be the central background arc holding the season together. The episodes stand alone nicely otherwise while still developing plot and characters organically out of the events and conflicts Barry must deal with. Episode 2 provides a lot of background on Barry’s childhood and how it shaped him and those around him. There’s also a lot of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) foreshadowing in both episodes that serve as a treat for fans familiar with the comic mythos.

What I’m most impressed with though is the atmosphere. There’s a sense of wonder at the center of everything that gives the show great heart and makes it a joy to watch. Barry’s extremely likable, which makes him engaging, easy to cheer for, and just plain fun to tag along with.

 

“Take your glow stick and go home.”

Justice League: War is based of the first story arc of the New 52 Justice League reboot, and features the first meetings and teaming of these reimagined versions of DCs biggest heroes

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The New 52 was at best a mixed bag, and a lot of what I didn’t like about it was on display here. The heroes don’t have the complexity or appeal of the previous versions, and several of them have been made more bloodthirsty and violent. In some cases, like Wonder Woman, it fits and is a natural direction for the character. It most others it just makes them grating and unlikable. The dialogue and character interactions are often downright painful, particularly those featuring Shazam. Superman is a complete cipher, just there to expedite the plot and get into the expected scuffles. Speaking of which, the conflicts between heroes are extremely contrived, and could have been resolved in seconds with a little talk and a lot of Green Lantern not being an ass.

There is some fun to be had here though. As much as I dislike this take on Green Lantern and his attitude, seeing Batman interact with him and put him in his place (repeatedly) is hilarious. While I find the underlying reasons behind the fights and the strategies employed flimsy, the action is quite well done and exciting to watch. And the movie is true to the source material, adapting the comic faithfully and making it work in a different format.

Overall I don’t have a lot of fondness for Justice League: War because the New 52 approach isn’t to my tastes, but there are some highlights and for viewers who do like these versions of DC’s heroes this is a strong adaptation.

Son of Batman Review

“The psychos just keep getting younger.”

Batman’s about to meet the son he never knew he had, but things are bound to be rocky considering Damian’s been raised by assassins since birth.

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Damian is a hit or miss character for me, but wow did they nail him here and use him as the center of a great story. The conflict between who he was raised to be and his father’s ideals and methods is balanced perfectly and an extremely compelling hook for the movie. The plot carries things well with clever twists and well developed, logical complications. It’s supported by incredible action and a formidable villain to bring everything together.

One of the things that’s vital for my enjoyment of a story are characters who are flawed without being artificially stupid to advance the plot. The cast here all have diverse motivations and personalities that reflect directly in their actions. When mistakes are made, they’re logical and believable extensions of the characters’ mindsets. This is so important to immersion and is done very well here. I also love the dialogue and character interactions, which beyond being entertaining do an excellent job of conveying the aforementioned personalities and motivations. Seeing all featured heroes acting like the detectives they are at various points is another highlight.

Son of Batman is much better than I expected going in and one of the best DC animated features I’ve seen in quite a while.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

Here we go. DC’s big attempt to jumpstart their movie franchises and build their own shared universe, starring their most iconic characters.

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From the early reviews I was expecting a trainwreck of epic proportions. Having seen it now I think they sold this film way short. Let’s be clear: this is NOT movie in the Marvel superhero mold, and going in with any preconceptions is just going to bias the viewer against what has been accomplished here. It’s far from perfect, but should be judged on its own merits rather than be compared to what other companies are doing.

While there were elements added to the character I didn’t care for, overall Ben Affleck’s Batman was quite interesting and played well. I’d very much like to see the rumored stand alone movie featuring this take. Superman didn’t work nearly as well. Henry Cavill just couldn’t seem to capture the nuanced emotions needed for how the part was written. Superman needed to convey being various stages of conflicted, angry, and worried, and instead I kept seeing the same semi-stern largely neutral expression in every scene. What little we saw of Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman made me excited for seeing more of her in the future.

Going back to preconceived notions, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is another aspect that really needs to be judged without comparison to other versions. It worked great for me, as I thought his maniac, ruthless Luthor was the perfect compliment / counterpoint to the atmosphere of the movie. But any viewer expecting / wanting Kevin Spacey will find the performance jarring and likely disappointing.

While there were definitely several areas that could’ve been improved, I enjoyed B v S overall. Decent story progression, intriguing versions of most of the characters, and a fair amount of potential going forward. I personally think the critic reviews were a bit too hard on this, and would recommend checking it out for yourself.

Black Orchid Review

This trade collects the complete Black Orchid miniseries by Neil Gaiman (issues #1-3).

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Black Orchid was the first comic of Neil Gaiman’s I’d read. In one sense it’s unusual for him in that it deals more directly with “regular” superheroes than his other works, featuring an established minor hero and appearances by familiar heroes and villains.

But the imagination and lack of strict adherence to convention that would mark his later work is present here too, and makes Black Orchid anything but a normal superhero story. There are twists, themes and heavy mythic overtones that give this a unique feel even 20+ years later. The questions of self-identity and morals raised are particularly interesting.

The art here is phenomenal, some of my favorite I’ve seen from McKean. It more defined than his usual and gets abstract when the story calls for it. The use of color is incredible, and the default grey scale of supporting characters really highlights it.

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Although not as revered as some of his other work Black Orchid is a wonderful shake up of the superhero genre by Gaiman that still holds up. And McKean’s breathtaking art is not to be missed.