Grant Morrison Week #2: JLA

NOTE: This was meant to be posted yesterday, but I’ve been really sick and exhausted, so I had to postpone it. Also, this was meant to be about another one of Morrison’s DC works–which I’m still planning to review–but I didn’t get it done in time. So instead, this.

Source: Wikipedia

One of the things I talked about on Wednesday was about how Morrison’s writing is full of incredibly big ideas, some of which pay off, others don’t. Morrison’s 41-issue tenure on JLA, the Justice League comic that ran from 1997-2006 (with Morrison kicking the book off), is full of ideas that do. Even better, they manage to feel completely true to the spirit of all these iconic characters while incorporating their history and their (then-current) status quo.

I haven’t finished the full run yet–at present, I’m halfway through the famous “Rock of Ages” story–but I like a lot of what I’ve read so far and Morrison’s go-for-broke plotting, along with the dynamic artwork of Howard Porter and Oscar Jimenez, are the reason why.

Basically, the setup behind this version of the Justice League–something stated explicitly in the first story arc–is that the League–which here has Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner), The Flash (Wally West), and Aquaman, with Green Arrow (Connor Hawke) and Aztek joining later on–only meets up in response to bombastic, large-scale threats.

Accordingly, every issue is full of gigantic, crazy stuff. For example, the first arc has the League facing off against the Hyperclan, a group of proactive superheroes from space who win over the public with their grand gestures but (of course) turn out to have sinister motives. A two-part story, which introduces the one-time DC Universe mainstay of Zauriel, involves Superman, who at the time had electric powers (it’s complicated), wrestling an evil angel named Asmodel who looked like a giant bull.

I repeat: Electric Superman wrestled a bull angel. How do you not want to check that out?

Basically, it’s everything I love about old-school comics–the crazy ideas, the weird stuff just tossed at the reader without any rationalizing other than “because”–combined with that punk rock energy Morrison always has, a reverence for and understanding of these characters and a lot more literary pizazz.

Of course, a comic book writer is only as good as his artist, and Porter (with Jiminez subbing in at some points), delivers the goods in droves. His characters and backgrounds are big. It’s been said that the DC heroes are gods, and Porter underlies that assumption with art that is energetic, bombastic and pleasing. He’s great fun.

If you liked the two Justice League cartoons–my friend at Critical Hit! wrote a great post about them which reminds me I really should get back into those at some point–and you want to know where the go-for-broke stuff came from, this entire run has been collected in trade and is really easy to find. Check it out.

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Grant Morrison Week #1: TALKING WITH GODS (Review)

Source: grantmorrison.com

When I was in high school and The Dark Knight came out, like millions of other people, I got excited about Batman. Unlike most people, I actually tried to get into current Batman comics. However, while Warner Bros. had a certified monster hit on their hands, getting millions upon millions of people excited about a guy named Bruce Wayne who dressed up as a bat and punched criminals in the face for the first time or the first time in a long time, DC Comics, their subsidiary that had originated the character had done perhaps the worst possible thing they could do for this moment:

They killed Batman.

Ok, to be fair, he was actually zapped back in time by the Omega Beams of the omnipotent despot Darkseid, but we found that out later. Now, Batman was definitively dead, with former Robin Dick Grayson forced into taking up the mantle instead.

These circumstances were due, I was told, to writer Grant Morrison, who had killed Batman off in the pages of the big “crossover event” of the year, Final Crisis, while simultaneously driving Bats crazy through the psychological torture of the evil Black Glove organization in the concurrent “Batman R.I.P.” storyline in the pages of the eponymous comic. I read both those storylines and came away very, very confused.

Final Crisis was bursting with an insane amount of ideas–the most prominent of which involve the superhero/New God Orion dying and Darkseid finally obtaining the “Anti-Life Equation” by unlocking the components in people’s minds through the Internet and gaining complete control over every sentient being in the universe–but it’s a fevered mess that resolves in a really trippy, goofy way. (I should stress that I haven’t read the story in years, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth).

“Batman R.I.P.” felt similarly muddled and rushed; I felt like I had wandered in late to something. It turns out I had. Beginning with the introduction of Bruce’s biological son, Damien, in the Batman and Son” storyline, Morrison–across multiple titles and with the help of various artists including Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, Andy Kubert and Chris Burnham, among others–embarked on a gigantic story putting Batman through hell and back. One of the big things Morrison stressed was that every Batman story ever written–going all the way back to 1939–had actually happened to the character.

Again, that’s a hell of an idea. The kind of big, showy thing that Morrison–who crossed over into American comics in the 1980s as part of the vaunted “British Invasion,” alongside Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore–has spent his entire career doing. But excised from the whole, “R.I.P.” confused the heck out of me, although I have gone on to read some more of his Batman run and enjoyed it immensely (particularly his amazing Batman & Robin run). Whether I just got bad advice or DC’s marketing department didn’t clarify well enough, I was left cold on Morrison.

But then when I turned 18, I received both volumes of his amazing, transcendent, lovely All-Star Superman for my birthday and fell in love with his reverent-but-not-too-reverent approach to comics history and his optimistic, awe-struck view of the Big Blue Boy Scout. The following year, I asked for his memoir/superhero comics history Supergods. Again, I was swept away by his captivating, bombastic prose and rock-and-roll personality (although his more out-there views I was a little less than sold on). His Action Comics run in DC’s New 52 reboot was something I also enjoyed, and I’m looking forward to his long-awaited The Multiversity series when it comes out in trade.

I tell you that rambling to tell you this: if you’re in a similar place where I was with Morrison, you owe it to yourself to check out the Respect Films/ Sequart documentary Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, released in 2011 and available on Hulu.

Constructed chronologically through several interviews with Morrison himself–shot in several locations, as indicated by the sudden changes in background and outfits he undergoes–as well as his friends and fellow industry pros, Gods is a brisk eighty-five minutes. No particular area of Morrison’s life and career feel shafted. Director Patrick Meaney shoots his subject in straightforward ways, and isn’t afraid to make the images on screen abstract–whether it be a shot of Morrison walking or a strange panel from one of his comics–when Grant’s voiceover goes into the obtuse range.

Meaney and DP Jordan Rennert–who, I must add, are delightful gentlemen in person–construct and compose their talking head shots with maximum clarity. While Morrison is the foremost voice on display here, he’s not the dominant one. Having so much outside perspective allows the viewer some distance from the more hard-to-take anecdotes Morrison offers, such as his claim that a visit from fourth-dimensional beings where he was shown the true nature of the universe inspired his Vertigo series The Invisibles. Conversely, in Supergods, readers had to take Morrison’s claims at face value.

The one fault I have with this movie is something I suspect the filmmakers had no control over. When Morrison’s wife, Kristi, enters the narrative, she’s praised by all who talk about her as an overwhelmingly positive influence on Grant’s life and work (she also acts as his manager). It’s bizarre, then, that she’s never seen outside of photographs and not even interviewed. Maybe she declined to be on camera, which I can understand, but her importance to Morrison that the film stresses is undercut by her absence.

Regardless, this is a well-done independent film and a good documentary that will make you sympathetic to someone who’s a rather polarizing figure in comics culture. It is very much worth your time.

NOTE: As the header says, this is the start of Grant Morrison Week. We’ll be back Friday with a look at one of Morrison’s most famous works.

JL8, Justice League and Why I Love the DC Universe

I read a lot of webcomics, as this blog has documented in depth, and one of my favorites, introduced to me this past fall by a friend of mine, is Yale Stewart’s JL8, which imagines a world where Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Power Girl and Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz) not only have their powers, but are all in grade school together at–you guessed it–8 years old.

Stewart’s art is cartoonish and pleasing, and his writing accurately captures what it might be like to be a kid with superpowers, while also incorporating shoutouts to longtime DC fans. After a long hiatus (mostly due to him, among other things, actually getting professional comics work), he started updating again and it’s been great. (If you’re interested, you can start here.)

Besides that, another thing has reminded me of how much I love the DC Universe. And that’s Justice League, the Bruce Timm cartoon that ran for 2 seasons on Cartoon Network before transitioning to Justice League Unlimited for three more seasons.

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I didn’t actually have Cartoon Network when this show came out, but I owned the pilot movie (split into three episodes) and a DVD containing the first 2 stories (which, like every story of this show, are both two-parters) and I loved them, so I’d rewatch them over and over again. I found out both this show and JLU are on Netflix so I’ve been getting back into it, just finishing the first season the other night.

Some people have complained that the show focuses too much on Batman to the detriment of the other heroes, or that Superman is consistently made to look like a loser, and while I get those points, for me, the show encapsulates just why I love the DC Universe.

Despite all the darkness that’s crowded around it in recent decades, the DCU, as a whole, is about people from all over the universe recognizing they have extraordinary abilities and using those to save people, to help people and to inspire them. If comic books are our modern mythology, the DC Universe is a particular strand that’s, for the most part, optimistic. DC heroes may fight or have differences, but they can put them aside whenever people are in danger.

(I should also point out that it truly is an all-encompassing mythology. The Fanholes Podcast discussed recently a twopart miniseries called History of the DC Universe that ties every character (well, in 1986 anyway) into one grand timeline encompassing the history of the universe, and it’s fascinating in its cohesiveness and consistency.)

The sheer icons that stand out–Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and so on–are the easiest to think of, but even the more obscure, like, say, Mr. Terrific, have the same goal in mind. They don’t want to rule or enslave, but they want to guide. They want to protect. They want to help.

It’s that compassion–that resolve to protect everyone or to make sure that what happened one night in Crime Alley never happens to anyone again–that defines these heroes and their stories.

And that’s why I keep coming back.

Wayne of Gotham–review

Book Review: WAYNE OF GOTHAM by Tracy Hickman

So at Grandcon, as I previously mentioned, I got to meet legendary fantasy author Tracy Hickman and his wife, Laura. Well, there was also a table selling some of his books. I neglected buying any of the Dragonlance ones, mostly because I didn’t know what was what. So instead, I plunked  down $17 for a copy of his original Batman novel from last year, Wayne of Gotham.

Before I dive into my review, let’s all note that cover, shall we? That’s by the great artist Ryan Sook, who doesn’t work often enough as he should, and it is just gorgeous. I would so buy this as a print.

Anyway, this story gives us an isolationist Batman ala The Dark Knight Returns. Bruce Wayne is rather old and is fighting crime all by himself with only Alfred’s help. There’s no Robin, Nightwing or Catwoman to be found. With his advanced age, Bruce has had to rely more and more on amping up his technology; the Batsuit he wears in this novel is essentially an Iron Man suit, amplifying his natural strength by tenfold and with all sorts of tricks.

Besides operating completely alone, it seems, Bruce also has cultivated a public reputation as a Howard Hughes-ian recluse ala The Dark Knight Rises; this is all in the service of Batman, naturally. If no one’s bothering Bruce Wayne, they won’t pick up on Batman.

Into this status quo comes a new arrival in the form of a mysterious woman named Amanda who claims to know things about his parents, things that Bruce has never heard about. What he learns is shocking, disturbing and ultimately changes the way Bruce thinks about his past.

An interesting part of this story is that we get a somewhat definite timeline for Batman, as we have flashbacks with Thomas Wayne in the 1950s as a young medical school graduate who gets in over his head all for the sake of Martha Kane, the girl next door. This is an interesting story which is given equal time parallel to the main story. And in both stories, Gotham is made a fully fleshed out character in its own right, which is always welcome.

As I said, this is an isolationist Batman. We really get no established villains other than the Joker and a couple others. Continuity-wise, this is its own thing, but it largely seems to be following the post-1986 timeline for Batman, with a brief mention to Scott Snyder’s current Batman run dropped at the end. It’s an interesting choice to make and while I wish there were more people to bounce off of, we see just how haunted Bruce is.

This book is not without its problems, alas. The dialogue drops the ball quite a few times–one scene in particular where Bruce confronts Alfred over a secret he’s been hiding contains the especially ludicrous line, “No Alfred! Master Bruce doesn’t want his cookies and his milk!”–and the descriptive passages describing how the Batmobile or another piece of technology works is annoying and more confusing than helpful. The ending is also pretty controversial, with at least one other reviewer I know actively disavowing this book.

But overall, if you’re lucky for a Batman story that’s different from what we get, this fits the bill. I’ve thought lately that Batman’s unique psyche is best explored in a novel and this book reinforces that thought. Check it out if you like.

Of Batman and Captain America

Beware-the-BM-1_uw76ywt5af_

I’ve talked about how much I like Beware The Batman before and, given that it’s on hiatus as of this writing reportedly until January, I’ll probably be doing that again sometime soon.

But to tide us over, DC has released a tie-in comic, the first issue of which came out this week and which I reviewed over at Drunk On Comics. SO go read that.

As with last time, there was stuff I left out of the review, mainly my one big quibble with the issue. In the opening pages, Katana is wielding the Soultaker Sword, a powerful weapon that does, well, exactly what it sounds like. But (slight spoiler here) that sword is stolen from Katana during the course of the show. I’m not fully caught up, I realize, but I don’t think she’d get it back so soon. That, coupled with the now-jailed Simon Stagg being out and about, the timing of this is really odd. Best not to think about it too much.

Anyway, the other big nerd news from this week? The trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier finally landed, and it. Looks. AWESOME.

Seriously, how cool does this look? I like that, with the Avengers being an occasional team in the Marvel Cinematic Universe rather than a permanent one, they chose to focus on the super-spy/S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff that also makes up a huge part of Cap’s story.

Also, I would bet pretty heavily on at least two people from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.–which, if you aren’t watching, you should be–making an appearance. Because synergy.

I can’t emphasize how much I’m looking forward to this; between now and then, I’m gonna look up and read a whole lot of Captain America comics.

Batfleck

We stick up for Superman a fair bit around here but I’ve always loved Batman too. I’ve been on a Batman kick these past couple of weeks and what good timing!

Last Thursday, Warner Bros announced that they had found the next actor to portray the Dark Knight in 2015’s Batman and Superman movie. And that actor is…Ben Affleck!

On the surface, this seems awesome! A two-time Oscar-winning director and screenwriter who also happens to be a very accomplished actor playing the most popular and most psychologically complex superhero out there? This could be amazing.

But judging from things, it seems most don’t feel that way. A petition to remove him circulating on change.org–an organization, I remind you, that normally targets unfair laws and murderers who got off scot-free–had something like 17,000 signatures when I looked at it. Some zealous idiots even tried to start a petition on the website of the White House–which the administration thankfully removed.

A lot of the hate seems to come from the fact that people still can’t get over the fact that Affleck played the title role in the decade-old Daredevil movie–which I don’t remember being too bad but regardless–and that Affleck has made some terrible movies over the years.

Here’s the problems there: 1. Daredevil was a decade ago; get over it! 2. Every actor is capable of being in a terrible movie and most times, it’s the production teams fault, not theirs.

Another thing: Affleck is, if Kevin Smith’s comments of yesterday are to be believed, a huge Batman fan. And whatever you thought of him back then, you need to put it aside. Need I remind you that his movie Argo won Best Picture Oscar last year, even though he wasn’t nominated for Best Director, which almost always happens?

Face it: he’s proven himself and we can’t doubt him on this one. And hey, being an Oscar-winning screenwriter, he might be allowed to put his touch on the script. That and Christopher Nolan apparently stepping away from things means we might get at last a Batman in a costume and not a black bodysuit who can actually speak in a normal voice.

I liked the Dark Knight trilogy too but it’s time we moved on, guys. Time for Batman to be happy.

Beware The Batman

Initially, I was ambivalent about Beware The Batman, the newest endeavor from Warner Bros. Animation for a couple of reasons. One was that I couldn’t bear with something replacing my beloved Young Justice. The other was that I just didn’t see the need for another Batman cartoon.

I mean, we’ve had four in my lifetime alone: the transcendent Batman The Animated Series, the stellar Batman Beyond, The Batman which I never watched and don’t know anyone who did but it won Emmys, and the better than anyone gives it credit for Batman: The Brave and The Bold. So why bring another along, especially when replacing one of the best superhero shows ever?

But ever curious and optimistic, I watched the first episode on demand and now having seen all six episodes out so far, I can tell you that Beware The Batman is a solid show, taking risks while sticking true to the mythos we all know and love.

There’s quite a few things to talk about here and, since this is the Internet, let’s do that in list form!

Number 1: The Hero

This is a young Batman, probably right around the start of his career, so no Robin, Batgirl, etc. Instead, he’s got Alfred, who here is recast as a bowler hat-clad older Jason Statham look-alike who used to be in MI6 (and has no mustache!) and Katana, a.k.a. Tatsu Yamashiro, who here is Alfred’s goddaughter, a highly trained martial artist and Bruce Wayne’s driver and bodyguard.

Katana is obviously someone most people don’t know, but she does have ties to Batman in comics as part of the superhero team the Outsiders, who are basically Batman’s black ops Justice League. As of this writing, Tatsu hasn’t even donned the costume of Katana yet, but it’s a gradual arc and I’m looking forward to how it plays out. The action-heavy Alfred is jarring at first, but you do get used to it, and it’s handled very well; Alfred is basically like Mr. Steed from The Avengers if he had become a mentor figure.

As for Batman himself? Well, his costume is rather bizarre at first glance, but it really does have appeal. The design of it is basically a visual blend of the Golden Age Batman, the long-eared Batman drawn by people like Doug Moench, and the Batman of the Nolan trilogy. It captures that blend rather successfully, I feel. The gadgets are really cool; I’m partial to a sequence where Batman leaps off his Batcycle as his cape turns into a hang glider. And for the most part, this is what a young Batman would be like: confident, but nervous and prone to the occasional slip-up and maybe being a little more eager to intimidate. So for our hero and his team, we’ve got a good start.

Number 2: The Villains

This is easily the most noticeable aspect of the show: at least up front (although the creators have said they’ll get to bigger villains), the villains are deliberately obscure. We have people like Professor Pyg, Mr. Toad, Magpie and Anarky as the Big Bad.

Obviously, some of these guys have to be changed; Professor Pyg, for example, had a penchant for cutting people’s faces off and replacing them with other faces in his comics appearances. But minor things happen too.  Anarky’s costume has been changed from his Hourman-ish color scheme to a pure white–meant to subvert the  whole White Knight/Dark Knight dichotomy.

So we have an interesting group here and honestly, I think they’re done really well. I’m interested to see how this all works and how this creative team deals with people like Scarecrow or Catwoman.

Number 3: The Animation

This is the first-ever all CGI Batman cartoon and the second CGI cartoon done by Warner Bros. Animation.  The first was Green Lantern: The Animated Series and while I saw less than half of it, it did a very good job of taking the cosmic vastness of the Green Lantern universe and rendering it to modern-day animation. Unlike this show, GL was produced by animation god Bruce Timm; while he’s not around here, many other WB veterans are on board, like Mitch Watson (who created the underrated Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated) and Glen Murakami (who created that Teen Titans cartoon everyone loved so much; everyone but me) to directors like Curt Geda and Sam Liu. So a solid, experienced group of creators that couldn’t be more suited to this task.

This ain’t without its problems, though.  The first episode has some very, very stiff animation, and my biggest problem with the series is that, for the most part, it seems like Gotham City is an abandoned place. That’s annoying as heck and creates no tension if there’s no civilians to be saved. The most recent episode sidestepped this by having pedestrians and honestly, I chalk this problem up to budget. But the atmosphere and lighting of the show is terrific, although it can be a bit dark at times, and I really look forward to seeing how this works going forward.

The stylized theme song is also terrific. Over a tight, rocking theme by New York band The Dum Dum Girls, we get an excellent cool intro that’s worthy of Golden Age James Bond. It’s a treasure.

Number 4: The Supporting Cast

Besides Alfred and Katana, our main supporting character is Lt. (not Commissioner) Gordon. Much like in other early visions, Gordon doesn’t trust Batman and is committed to the law above all else. Barbara Gordon has also made some appearances; she’s a teenager and hasn’t had much depth, but introducing her so early, you know something will pay off.

Number 5: The Stories

The stories are all stand-alone, but we also have pieces of an arc stretched out that will involve the League of Assassins (not the League of Shadows, as the Nolan films have you believe) and Katana becoming Batman’s sidekick. They’re all competently written and even in six episodes, we’re seeing things circle in on one another. Hopefully, this sort of pacing will continue.

Number 6: The Voice Cast

For me, this is the most important factor for any animated show. For the most part, we have a talented, tight cast. WIth Andrea Romano handling casting and voice direction, you know you’re gonna get great performances. Anthony Ruvivar is no Kevin Conroy, but no one can be. To try and claim to do so is ridiculous. Although he stumbles a bit in the pilot episode, he gets better at differentiating between the two roles and brings life to both in a confident, assured way.

Sumalee Montano is Katana and she is great. Taking the battle weariness and warrior’s edge from her role on Transformers: Prime, she blends it with a Japanese accent and gives us an action hero. As Katana’s journey continues, I’m excited to see what’s to come.

j.B. Blanc is Alfred and he sells this new version. He’s wizened, gruff but loyal and steady. He does nice work and it’s a good way to get this new version of the character behind you.

Kurtwood “Red Foreman” Smith is Gordon and, after him hanging around the edges of WB cartoons for so long, it’s nice to hear him in a lead role. His Gordon is a competent investigator who wants to uphold the law and despises anyone who rises above it.

The rest of the cast–which includes folks like Adam Baldwin and Matthew Lilliard–are good in their roles and help bring life to these character models. Again, we have a winning cast.

And that’s it really. If you like Batman but were tired of the Nolan films’ somberness and dourness but still want something serious, this is for you. This is also a great show for kids, so show it to them. There’s a tie-in comic coming from DC in October and I’ll let you know how that is too.

Now I’d go into this whole Ben Affleck thing, but that’ll have to wait for a little while.