Saturday, February 26, 2011

For What It’s Worth #2: The Batman Chronicles #15

The Batman Chronicles #15 was originally published in Winter 1998 and carries a cover price of $2.95. It features three stories. They are, in order, “Will to Power” by Kelley Puckett and Joe Staton & Bill Sienkiewicz, “Between Stars Above and Below” by Marco Palmieri and James A. Hodgkins, and “An Answer in the Rubble” by Greg Rucka and Roger Cruz.
Probably not worth the cover charge

Another large issue, it follows the same format as the other Batman Chronicles issue I’ve reviewed. The first story is 18 pages and the other two are 10 each.

“Will to Power” is a fun little Batman/Kyle Rayner team-up. The art by Staton and Sienkiewicz is a treat. This story is basically about Kyle going to Gotham for the first time to try and recover a necklace that some Gothamite thug stole. Of course, Batman takes umbrage at the new (well, new at the time) Green Lantern infringing on his turf. In a brief and humorous scene, Batman takes Kyle’s power ring and tells him to leave it alone. Kyle doesn’t, and in the end he earns Batman’s begrudging respect.

The second story strikes more of a contemplative tone. Taking place in the aftermath of the Cataclysm, Barbara Gordon feels like quitting her work as she ponders in the rubble of the clocktower. Somehow, she encounters the Man-Bat, they share a kind of kinship, he takes her out flying, and she rediscovers her center and decides to continue being Oracle and fighting the good fight.

I’ve never heard of either Palmieri nor Hodgkins. I can’t say that the story itself is actually good. At best, it’s competent and does what it’s supposed to do with a hokey premise. The art’s rather outstanding, though. The two page spead where the Man-Bat takes Oracle out flying over the ruined cityscape of Gotham is well-done. It’s a style that somehow reminds me of Ryan Sook and a very poor man’s Geof Darrow.

Other than the art, though, this isn’t a good story. I have to say that I’ve always found the concept of the Man-Bat rather hokey, like whoever created him thought that it would be cool to have Batman fight a man that was a bat. That’s on the same level as having Daredevil fight a literal devil, or taking Moon Knight to the moon. (Both of which have been done, but whatever.)  It’s even more absurd in this story as he takes Babs out for a night flight. I just don’t buy it at all.

“An Answer in the Rubble” was of the most interest to me when I found this in the quarter bin, as it’s written by Rucka and is a story featuring the Huntress and the Question (the Vic Sage version). This story also takes place during the No Man’s Land event and is about the Huntress working to stop corrupt soldiers from hijacking relief supplies being driven into Gotham City from Hub City (which is how the Question ties into the story). Though it’s a short story, Rucka is able to highlight the angry, vicious edge of the Huntress, which sets her apart from the rest of the Bat-family. Rucka also uses the Question in a way that’s a logical continuation of the Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan version of the character.

Of course, Rucka would go on to one great gem of a miniseries with the Huntress and the Question later, in 2000’s Batman/Huntress: Cry for Blood, probably the quintessential Huntress story. That miniseries was illustrated by Rick Burchett, and I have to say that Roger Cruz, who draws the story in this issue of Chronicles, is not even ¼ the artist that Burchett is.

I’d go so far as to say that Cruz’s art ruins Rucka’s story, completely undermining his characterization with some truly atrocious ‘90s style excess. I mean… I’ve seen worse, but this is bad.

All in all, though, we get one good all-around story, one story with weak writing and good art, and one story with good writing and terrible art.

For what it’s worth, I would have even paid 35 cents for this.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

For What It's Worth #1 - The Batman Chronicles #10

Today we’re starting what we plan to be a recurring feature for This Ain’t Kansas.

As comics fans, we all know how much comic books can cost. We live in an era where there are 22 page comics that retail for $3.99. That’s a fat chunk of change for something you could, conceivably, read in seven minutes or less. Even the price of trade paperbacks is rising. Used to be you could get a 6-issue TPB for like 15 bucks and be guaranteed that waiting for the trade would save you some money. Now a 6-issue trade can run from 16 to 20 bucks. The paperback edition of Invincible Iron Man volume 5: Stark Resilient, Book 1 collects 4 issues and retails for 16 dollars. And it’s not even a complete storyarc! That’s garbage.

Face facts, true believers. Comics ain’t cheap. Not new ones, at least.

Sure, there are sites you can go to for big discounts off trade paperbacks, hardcovers, back issues, and even new issues. There are second-hand bookstores where you can find a plethora of trades, hardcovers, and even prestige format books. There’s also eBay. I’m down with obtaining cheap comics with any method available to us in today’s world.

My friends, we are always questing for deals and cheap comics. The hunt itself is often part of the fun – it’s sorta the modern-day equivalent of searching for buried treasure. And to me, digging through a ratty old long box full of quarter-priced comics is a mission I will always sign up for.

For What It’s Worth will be a series of quick reviews on random comics that we’ve found in quarter bins.

First up, The Batman Chronicles #10. Originally published in Fall 1997 with a cover price of $2.95, this comic book features three separate stories. There’s “To See the Batman” by Bob Gale and Bill Sienkiewicz, “The Madman’s Tale” by Chris Duffy and Javier Saltares, and “Odd Attachment” by Gary Frank.

I really dig this intricate cover by Phil Winslade

The first story, “To See the Batman,” is actually a prose short story by Gale with spot illustrations by Sienkiewicz. Unlike Grant Morrison’s issue-length prose story from Batman #663, Gale’s text is much more straightforward. While it feels, in a way, more quaint than any sort of post-modernist prose, it’s very readable. Gale’s story is about a high schooler who wants to impress a girl by taking a picture of Batman. It’s enjoyable enough, with an engaging plot, although there are a few passages here and there that felt a bit amateurish.

The second story isn’t so hot. Shoddy artwork doesn’t help it, either. It’s about a young up-and-coming gangster who hears a story about Batman, gets scared straight, and goes home to his mother. This could have been a short story that could have been better had it been either scarier or funnier. As it is, it’s forgettable pap.

Gary Frank’s story (he wrote and penciled it) is a mildly amusing tale of a man who tries to pay some ransom to a group of thugs, only Batman shows up to beat the snot out of them. The twist at the end of the story when the man is reunited with his loved one is silly, but it’s meant to be intentionally so. While the story lacks meat, it’s clearly a chance for Frank’s art to shine. This comic came out in 1997, so it’s more similar to his Peter David Hulk style than it is to his current style.

The short story is a lost art in comics. A few series and anthologies here and there over the past decade have brought us some fantastic work, but this issue of The Batman Chronicles doesn’t really measure up.

However, at only a quarter? This comic is definitely worth it. It’ll probably take at least a half hour to read the whole thing, so that’s definitely good value for your twenty-five cents. And it’s all the better if you happen to be a particular fan of Sienkiewicz or Frank and just have to have their obscure work in your collection.

For what it’s worth, I would have even paid 40 cents for this comic.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City

In the latest DC Comics solicitations for the month of May, one of the listed releases is a reprint of Milligan's three-issue Batman story, "Dark Knight, Dark City," under the DC Comics Presents banner. (It also includes issue 633 from his Detective Comics run from the early '90s.)
Mike Mignola did the covers for each issue of the Dark Knight, Dark City

This is an excellent and relatively unheralded Batman story. Those of you who have been reading Grant Morrison's contemporary Batman epic can find some of the roots of Morrison's inspiration in Dark Knight, Dark City. (The concept of Barbathos was introduced in this particular story.) It's also one of the best Riddler stories I can think of.

Milligan did some topnotch Batman comics in the early nineties, so it's nice to see at least some of them get reprinted. His Detective Comics issues were all mostly superb done-in-one stories, crafted so artfully that there was a poetry to the rhythm of their execution.

This DC Comics Presents reprint should be available on May 18 for the retail price of $7.99.

Milligan also has a story in the upcoming Vertigo Anthology, Strange Adventures #1, set to release on May 25. An 80-page comic, Strange Adventures #1 also features the first chapter of Brian Azzarello's and Eduardo Risso's new collaboration, Spaceman.

The cover to Strange Adventures #1

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Human Target #3 (Miniseries)

Milligan’s third issue sets up all the pieces for the finale of the story. Players are moved into place accordingly, though Milligan still provides room for character development and subtext. Often times, the penultimate act of a story tends to involve moving the players around like chess pieces in a way where the characters simply feel like they’re going through the motions because we don’t see them grow or learn. I think Milligan circumvents this trap easily because so much of the drama inherent in the Human Target is psychological drama, and conversations and narrative captions give us more information to appreciate the story.

Not to say that everything in this chapter is all inner turmoil and psychological. It opens up with Dee Noyz and some of his thugs unloading submachine guns and assault rifles on a residential home. Rev. James, soon revealed to be Tom, also cleans out a den of gangbangers before inviting the neighborhood to hear his sermon on Sunday. Chance, meanwhile, has another battle with Emerald.

One of the best scenes in the issue is during their fight, when Chance knocks the pistol away from Emerald as they struggle. They talk to each other to buy some time, and Chance asks if he can buy her off. Emerald declines, because, as Chance already knows, she has a reputation to think of. It’s another example of how seamlessly Milligan reinforces the idea of identity by reminding us of a reputation and what it truly means. Is a reputation all that we are? If everyone thinks of us in a certain way, does that make them right? Does that make it true?

Then they decide that, as the pistol lies on the floor equidistant from them both, there is a fifty percent chance for each of them to reach it. They both agree to make a deal to back off. The next panel, as we flip the page, is of both of them diving headlong for it. In the ensuing struggle, with their hands fumbling over the gun, they exchange some of Milligan’s trademark deadpan witticisms. “Christopher! You lied to a lady!” shouts Emerald. (60) Chance responds, “It’s what the modern world has brought me to.” (60) He headbutts her in the nose, gets the gun, aaaaaaaaaand scene.

Tom, as Rev. James, returns to Becky, his estranged wife, and says that they can finally be a family again with their son Sam. The only catch is that he must remain as Earl James. This obviously doesn’t go over well with Becky, and there’s this great bit of dialogue that Tom (as Rev. James) says to her: “What’s a name? What’s a personality? What’s a person? What do these terms mean? Love me. Forget which me it is you’re loving. Becky, can’t we just pretend?” (63)

That dialogue is one of those bits of writing that really encapsulates what Milligan’s trying to accomplish with this series. And Biukovic does a keen job on illustrating their conversation. He captures the emotion within them both, not only with their facial expressions, but with their body language. Tom has clenched fist in one panel, then open palms in the next. It’s very fluid work, drawn from different angles. There’s a pair of panels where we’re looking at them through a window in Becky’s house, only the window panes serve as the panel borders. It’s a fantastic, yet particularly subtle way of showing how two people who are in the same room can still be light years away from each other. And their expressions say it all: Tom, with a somber yet honest look, and Becky with her eyes wide open in disbelief and shock at what she’s hearing, with both of her hands clasped to her neck.

Another interesting scene is when Emerald, who was apparently released from Chance’s mercy, is in her civilian life for a fleeting moment, and then confronts Dee Noyz in an attempt to pump him for info. Dee Noyz, in this scene, however, is actually Tom in disguise, and he later goes into the bathroom of a local diner and begins removing his makeup and disguise. As he walks out into the diner, though, he sees that he’s only removed half of his face, and he just loses it and begins shooting the mirror behind the bar. He looks a bit like Two-Face. Maybe not the most subtle scene Milligan’s written, but I think it balances out the conversation Tom had with Becky.

On the next page, we see that the real Rev. Earl James, who has been on life-support in the hospital, has finally died. His widow Bethany returns to their house. There’s an excellent panel where Bethany, framed in the doorway and surrounded by pitch black darkness, asks, “Hello? Are you home? Earl?” (69) Each question she speaks is lettered in its own separate word balloon. There’s something about seeing three separate word balloons in this panel that just adds to the sense of loneliness and uncertainty. You know it’s good comics when even the letterer (in this case, Robert Solanovic) knocks it out of the park.

Eventually, Bethany and Becky find Bruno and make him take them to Chance in one final, last-ditch effort to have him help them solve their dilemmas. The issue ends with Rhea, the junkie whore who had the affair with Rev. Earl James, slitting her wrists in front of Dee Noyz (the real one, this time) on a beach. I guess dealing with the shame of selling out “the finest man [she] ever met. . . for a few rocks” was too much for her. (77) She asks Dee Noyz (whose real name is Dennis, which is what she calls him now), if he ever loved her. It’s a dramatic, perhaps melodramatic way to end the issue, but in a way it also complements the conversation between Tom and Becky earlier. Are there any happy endings in sight?