“In hindsight, there were signs…” – Death of the Family shows the flaws of DC’s serialized push

A4hdaJyCcAAPAd1Let’s talk about the Joker but, more importantly, let’s talk about the arch-nemesis archetype. The Joker is the purest dark reflection of Batman. He’s emotional where Batman is rational. He’s chaotic while Batman is axiomatic. He’s highly sexualized where Batman is highly fetishized. The Joker is what Batman is determined to never be. Batman sees the Joker as an enemy by default because he represents something that feels intrinsically wrong to him. It’s how I feel about homophobes, “Family Guy” fans and people who eat at Panda Express.

Batman is almost singularly unique in having an arch-nemesis that plays diametrically opposite him. For all their competition, Lex Luther hates Superman because he desperately wants to be Superman. For years, Magneto battled Charles Xavier because he viewed Xavier’s dream as too optimistic, too perfect. The Green Goblin battled Spider-Man because they’re virtually the same character, intelligent, driven men who have the power to use the world as their playground.

BM_Cv17+122802It’s hard to write powerful Joker stories because of this. Joker intrinsically always feels less like a character and more like a force; he’s chaos, he’s death, he’s grief because he’s not really a character, he’s a reflection. Joker’s biggest moments are remembered for what he did, not who he was. We remember Batman cradling Jason Todd’s corpse. I remember Barbara’s body crumbling to the floor. We remember Batman holding a bullet wound as he stands over his enemy’s broken body. I can quote verbatim the “interject a little anarchy” speech. The Joker works for moments, he’s a taste that lingers on the back of your tongue way after you’ve swallowed the last rancid bite.

It’s the intrinsic problem of writing long form stories around the character. Joker exists to cause the chaos, to be the hurricane. Scott Snyder wrote Death of the Family clearly trying to get into the Joker’s mindset. In interviews, he extensively compared Joker’s plan to the fear of his children being killed, what I naturally assume to be a pretty tough thing for parents. By placing that sort of thematic weight on the character, Snyder forced us to look at the Bat-Family as children and turn his villain into the bogeyman.

47qSpeaking strictly in terms of plot, Death of the Family suffered the same disease that all of DC’s franchises have as the New 52 enters its second year. With the books finally starting to blend together, editorial is demanding bigger stories, justifications for the links between books. With that in mind, the Bat-writers needed a way to bring Joker’s promise to kill the family into a very personal place for Damian, Dick, Barbara, Jason and Tim. What we received were crossover titles, each varying wildly in tone and quality. Where Batman and Robin #15-16 were a living nightmare of insects, patricide and taunts, Nightwing #15-16 was  Friday the 13th: Part III, complete with the return to the villain’s most famous stomping ground.

Those crossovers had a purpose that was clearly at odds with the one Snyder was setting up in Batman proper. Each of the writers needed to make the Joker’s threat unique to the individual character. The Joker taunts Damian with his failures as a sidekick and as a hero. The Joker forces Dick to come to terms with the way he uses people to separate himself from the man he is behind the mask. The Joker makes Barbara acknowledge her relationship to the Gordon family, no matter how twisted the roots of the tree are. While some of these stories undoubtedly worked, the theme of Death of the Family was, according to Snyder, meant to be the family Bruce has constructed.

batgirl15p2-31100But that’s also sort of the problem. Death of the Family was thematically all over the place. Is Batman meant to be the King of Gotham? Does Joker feel like Batman’s lover or son? Why is such an importance placed on Batman’s relationship with James Gordon? What was the need to recreate the pair’s earliest encounters? The theme I picked up on the most clearly through Death of the Family was meant to be the relationship between Joker and Batman but it’s never made concrete. Snyder went with the Frank Miller’s description of the Joker as a homophobic nightmare but there was no teeth. Joker consistently played up the connection Alan Moore originally made about the two characters in The Killing Joke, the idea that at some level, Batman and the Joker are going to be doing this forever but after all, they’re both still human. It’s much harder to see Joker split up Batman’s family when the first four issues of the event seem to write the villain as the sidekicks’ new stepmom.

Which leads us to the finale in Batman #17. The chips are down, dinner is served and it’s time for the denouement but what is it meant to be honestly. Reading through issue #17, I was consistently reminded of the rightfully much maligned “Ocean’s Twelve,” a movie that commits one of the most memorable examples of trying desperately to keep the audience sense of disbelief but more importantly, a movie that depends on lies. The issue and the story-line as a whole climaxes with two characters bluffing. Are we supposed to believe either one of them? What power does the Joker have if each of his lines goes back against itself endlessly? He doesn’t seem enigmatic, joking or even interesting; it all just seems like bullshit.

Batman_17_PanelIn a post-mortem interview, Snyder stresses that the conclusion of Death of the Family leaves Bruce’s support network in tatters. Trusts have been betrayed. The characters have been tortured. Batman has won a seemingly hollow victory against an unstoppable force. It’s just really hard to see it that way. As Batman pursues the Joker in the final issue, he shares a moment with Nightwing that says so much about both characters but it doesn’t feel like anything has changed. Dick will never really leave Bruce. Barbara will never give up the cowl. Damian will never give up on his father (and as readers may have seen in the exceptional Batman and Robin #17, he may be satisfied with what he’s been through).

What I’ve seen is another in an endless series of stop-gaps, another problem that will need to be solved before the next omni-event begins. This is DC at it’s worst and it’s a problem they’ve been pushing since the beginning of the New 52, which is plot always and endlessly above character. In a world where it could have been compressed into a shorter, smaller more well focused story, Death of the Family could have worked instead of extending itself across titles and themes in a way that felt inauthentic to every character it touched.

“I should be ashamed. But I’m not.” – Matt Fraction’s Fantastic Four #4 gives a stand-alone unexpected weight

ffMatt Fraction is trying something devilishly clever in his Marvel works by writing nothing but loosely serialized mainstream comics. It’s a bold departure from the rest of the publisher’s line and even from Jonathan Hickman’s run on the title. By writing stand alone issues, he’s intelligently given his characters time to shine in a variety of situations while letting the stresses of each issue weigh on the characters.

Fantastic Four has benefitted from this writing style as much as the also excellent Hawkeye but the First Family also has the problem of starting with a premise. From the first issue, Fraction set up Reed’s need to find a cure for his cellular degeneration as well as Franklin’s dreams of a bleak future in space. It’s obviously a long game but one that constantly needs acknowledged.

Fantastic-Four-3Fraction may have made a small misstep in the third issue. When the family makes contact with a living planet, it’s clear Fraction and Mark Bagley were trying to set up a Dr. Who style sci-fi romp with a pure pulp heart but the characterization took a back seat. It’s clear Fraction is trying to highlight Ben’s struggle to fit in as he’s pushed out of his element but it just didn’t mesh together very well. It’s hard to tell if Fraction was setting up the pieces or if he had learned his lesson but the series’ fourth issue pulls it all together in a big way.

Reed and Sue are put in sharp focus here as the family stumbles onto an uncharted planet which worships the Fantastic Four after discovering cave paintings of the team thousands of years ago. It’s a neat premise and it pairs well with Reed’s flashbacks to the early days of his relationship with Sue.

fanfou10Bagley is one of the reason this issue in particular shines. His style has always recalled John Romita Sr. and shows off the facial work that made Ultimate Spider-Man stand out on shelves for years. He’s great with people and his aliens are consistently depicted and well designed. His strength really shines in those pivotal flashbacks though. He brings a certain sense of soft, sunny  nostalgia to Reed’s memories of his wife and it makes the sequence shine.

Of course, that’s all leading to the gut punch. Reed has to rewrite history to remind himself of what’s important in his life. Sue’s written for the first time in the series as a woman who sees and knows much more than she lets on. The future foretold in Fraction’s also excellent FF #3 is coming soon and Reed’s breaking down as the future rushes up to greet him and the family continues to splinter. This is one of Marvel’s best characters written excellently and forced into the only situation he can’t think himself out of. Frankly, there’s no better place for Reed to be.

“Being a superhero is amazing. Everyone should try it.” – Marvel NOW keeps rolling along

ux2We’ve now had three months of Marvel NOW! and the new titles just keep rolling along. After the last roundup, there’s been a lot of change. FF, which I initially said was a little below board, has proven to definitively be the best, most stylish series of the bunch. Thor: God of Thunder, which I picked up on the recommendation of a commenter, brought all of Jason Aaron’s stylish, continuity embracing charms to the most godly Avenger. It’s been a neat experiment but with new books still coming, we’ve got a lot more rounding up to do. [Note: I didn’t pick up Morbius: The Living Vampire. I’m not a Spider-Man and friends fan and I just don’t plan to get into it.]

AvengersAvengers_1_PanelJonathan Hickman has been one of my favorite writers of the last three years for his high concept take on the Marvel Universe. He’s best at taking the smartest people in the room and making them do the impossible and that’s why his Avengers is still a bit of a slippery slope.

The first few issues have shined almost solely on the strength of Jerome Opena, who’s bringing the same dark, epic charms to the title that he brought to Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force. It’s a visual treat and the world spanning cast recalls Grant Morrison’s epic work on JLA. It’s not great and I’m admittedly not the biggest Avenger fan but this book definitely has an irresistible hook.

Rating: It’s really not my cup of tea but it seems to be blossoming into something worth reading.

New Avengerstumblr_mg0pnaMYkY1r159loo1_r1_1280Here’s where Hickman hits his stride. The most brilliant minds in the superhero community come together to reform the Illuminati in the wake of an interdimensional threat. It naturally recalls The Manhattan Projects, one of my favorite books of the year, and the hook alone is worth buying it for.

The art edges a little too close to Marvel’s house style but Hickman nails the characterizations. Black Panther’s brooding intelligence and his conflict with Namor’s haughty indifference is page turning and that’s not even mentioning the cold, calculating cynicism Reed Richards and Tony Stark are bringing to the conflict. These are great characters with competing goals, views, and strategies for dealing with the threat they face. With an art team willing to paint these characters in the shades of grey they deserve, this would be Marvel’s perfect Avengers book.

Rating: So close to perfect, it hurts.

Avengers Arenaarenaaaa0001It was the toast of pre-Marvel NOW! controversy and naturally, it’s become one of the company’s top sellers. Pitting the company’s teen characters against each other in a series that’s actively drawing from “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale,” Avengers Arena just goes for it with old school Avengers and X-Men villain Arcane trying out his old Murder World on a bigger scale than ever.

There’s really not a lot to say about the book itself though. Dennis Hopeless is one of the newcomers to The House of Ideas and he’s clearly more interested in the newer characters he’s created than anything else. It’s a disappointment, especially with one of the book’s big appeals being characters from Avengers Academy and Runaways. It’s nice that there’s a teen focused book on the shelves but it just doesn’t reach the heights of Marvel’s previous efforts on that front.

Rating: It’s trying way too hard and just being aggressively average for the efforts.

Cable and the X-ForcefacemeltHopeless is getting the fringe titles and it’s clear he’s trying but, boy, is it not working. The return of the Cable and Domino team-up should make those three Rob Liefeld fans wake up from their Doritos induced slumber but the book lacks punch. It’s nice to have Hope around to do awesome mutant action but the team up of Dr. Nemesis, Colossus and Forge as support characters doesn’t add much.

It doesn’t help that issue 3 features one of the most deliriously idiotic story lines in years. As Cable tries to stop a prophetic dream from occurring, the team discovers a fast food company that’s trying to infect the populace with mutant zombie meat. It’s such an aggressively dumb plot that you wouldn’t be wrong to think it was meant to be satire but Hopeless plays it with such a self-seriously straight face that it’s impossible to laugh.

Rating: You can skip this one like you’ve skipped every Cable book since Messiah War.

Thunderbolts2826629-venomMarvel doesn’t really seem to know how to do a dark book at this point. The best parts of Marvel NOW! have been optimistic, intelligent, character driven and thought-provoking books that put their iconic characters into new situations and settings. I’m all for that as DC seems to have embraced ennui and nihilism in their biggest titles. Marvel seems to be trying to bite off some of that style with the relaunch of Thunderbolts, bringing together Thunderbolt Ross (get it, eh, eh), Deadpool, Venom, Elektra and Punisher to destroy threats worldwide.

There doesn’t really seem to be much of a purpose for the team yet. These are some of the most dangerous and capable killers in the universe and they’re mostly just aiding militia fighters in a covert war. Why do they need the Punisher and Red Hulk? Why is Elektra willing to do this? The book doesn’t justify it’s choices well enough and the violence the book promises doesn’t come or provide any of the tension these personalities should bring to the table.

Rating: A massive waste of potential. Even for $2.99 and for the great team of characters, it’s not worth picking up.

Savage WolverinezaUxbI would love to think I’m a man of refined taste but there’s a primal appeal in watching Wolverine fight dinosaurs, SHIELD agents get torn to shreds and see Frank Cho’s crazy take on the female anatomy. Savage Wolverine is a showcase for the male comic fan’s basest instincts and it’s probably worth indulging in.

Wolverine wakes up in the Savage Land and is pretty quickly killing dinosaurs, fighting barbarians and teaming up with Shanna the She-Devil. It’s pure pulp. There’s no context, no tie-ins to Wolverine’s recent attempts to stop killing and no desire to show these characters’ place in the larger context of Marvel. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier to see the company have this much fun with one of their biggest characters.

Rating: I feel bad about loving this as much as I do. It’s worth seeing if you will too.

Superior Spider-Mansuperior-spiderman-identityIt’s an uphill battle for me to care about Spider-Man from the get go and the Amazing Spider-Man 700 twist certainly didn’t help matters. I like Dan Slott. I think he’s a funny guy who cares deeply about the character but Spider-Man is a character who exists in a virtually impenetrable pocket of the Marvel Universe. No one touches New York in the same way Spider-man does and that’s what makes any lasting change in the character feel so strange.

Superior’s Doc Ock swap feels like a stop-gap and it’s one readers are familiar with. Peter’s not gone, even if his ghost wasn’t there, he still wouldn’t be gone. Once the next Amazing Spider-Man movie comes around, Parker will be back and that’ll be the end of the experiment as the status quo gets reset. For now, the book is uninteresting, the art cribs heavily from Todd McFarlane and Greg Capullo and the writing has the same alternatively dour and overly quippy style that has kept me away from Spider-books for years.

Rating: This is a Spider-Man book for Spider-Man fans and Spider-Man fans only. New comers need not apply.

Uncanny X-ForceUNCXF2013002covVarHow do you follow up one of the biggest surprise hits Marvel has seen in the last five years? Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force was one of the best X-books in a long time and it seemed impossible to see lightning strike twice. Sam Humphries has been given the unenviable job of doing just that and he wisely sets a different tone for the book.

Psylocke and Storm is a great team up, with both women facing major changes as the return of Fantomex and a divorce from Black Panther have put the women at new positions in their life. Both show off their power as they exorcise their demons and although the group doesn’t have a clear goal, it’s neat stuff to see them team up with Alpha Flight member Puck. It’s a super colorful, stylish to a fault first issue that looks to be a lot of fun especially with a drug dealing Spyral, the return of Bishop and a final page reveal of Fantomex’s new leading lady.

Rating: Don’t think this is a revamp and get on the action packed ride. It looks like it’s going to be fun.

Young Avengersnice-art1The kids have grown up. When last we saw the Young Avengers, they were crippled by loss, war and the realizations that the real world is a brutal place to grow up. Kierron Gillen has a much different take on these characters. These are teenagers. They hook up, make out and have fun with the fact that they’re occasionally the smartest, toughest, most dangerous people in the room.

Gillen nails the characterizations here. Kate Bishop is a girl playing the game for the thrill, the sex, the battle, the fun. The relationship between Hulkling and Wiccan feels like the kind of kamikaze love that can only happen when you’re 18. Kid Loki rocks being the self-righteous punk who doesn’t care who you are or what you’re selling. It’s a book that we’ve seen a couple of times before as the team starts to form up to face down a new potential Skrull attack but you can’t find many better characters to spend the time with.

Rating: Until Runaways gets a new volume, this is the premier teen series. That’s not a bad thing.

Fearless Defendersfearless-defenders-1bMarvel’s clearly been happy with how much better they look than DC on the subject of gender diversity, sexuality and women in comics but that’s not much of an accomplishment. It’s like me being happy for being taller than my dog. Fearless Defenders received a lot of early press for the team up between shit-kicking ladies Dani Moonstar and Valkyrie and the pair do work really well but this is an action comic first and foremost.

It works on the strength of just that and the rest of the first issue shines for the characterization and bold choices. It’s a fun fight book with these two very different characters taking on pirates and Viking zombies. There’s a lot of style to work with here and this has the potential to be one of the most fun pure-action comics of Marvel’s relaunch.

Rating: It’s the most sexy, violent, empty-headed, pop-culture addled, ’80’s obsessed, straight up fun book Marvel is putting out right now.