The New Boy Wonders – Establishing Robin in a world without Batman

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I don’t envy writers who have to try to separate Robin from Batman. From his very first appearances in the 1940s, Robin’s relationship with Batman has always been characterized as one of a father and his sons. Even under the best of circumstances, separating a Robin from the Caped Crusader, leaves a character in the shadow of the more known hero. The most successful reestablishments of Robin without Batman usually dramatically alter the status quo and forcibly separate the two characters. The recent Grayson did a fantastic job turning former-Robin-turned-Nightwing-turned-Batman-turned-Nightwing-turned-spy Dick Grayson into a character on his own, in over his head and having to depend on his own strengths to deal with unique character-specific challenges, much like how the successful Chuck Dixon Nightwing relaunch relocated Dick into a crime-infested Bludhaven.

The post-Endgame status quo gives DC an open palate to put a new spin on Robin by taking the Batman readers have known for decades off the table. With the world believing Batman has died in a final battle with the Joker, the very idea of Robin can be given an entirely different characterization. Robin’s not a son anymore. He’s a standard-bearer and DC’s two new Robin-centric titles give very different interpretations on what carrying a legacy means.

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Patrick Gleason’s Robin: Son of Batman is the most straight forward approach but it’s one that also doesn’t directly address the absence of Batman. After his resurrection, Damian Wayne is taking a new look at his life. He’s continuously confronted by death and he’s no longer able to shove down his guilt and regret over his own bloody past. It’s a natural growth for the character. In the Peter Tomasi run on Batman and Robin, Damian slowly came to terms with his tortured, traumatic past by seeing the future his father was trying to build. With the tragic end of Batman Incorporated, Grant Morrison showed Damian’s final turn away from Ra’s and Talia’s plans for him and embrace of his father’s path and this issue’s focus on Damian’s guilt and rejection of the League of Assassin’s tenants is a clear way to pick up what that story established.

Robin: Son of Batman #1 puts Damian on a Herculean quest. He’s writing the wrongs of his past, trying to clean up the years of spilled blood, trying to do his best to honor both his father as well as his surrogate father, Dick Grayson. Gleason sells the hell out of Damian’s guilt and uncertainty in a wonderful, haunting nightmare sequence where the child continuously is forced to relive his guilt and his own death and when he finally chooses to begin a year of atonement, it feels earned, like Damian is doing more than just choosing to follow in his father’s shadow. He’s creating a new path.

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We are Robin #1 is a more ambitious approach to the relationship between Batman and Robin and more directly addresses a Gotham City without Bruce Wayne as Batman. The issue centers around Duke Thomas, a minor character who has appeared twice in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, whose parents disappeared following one particularly traumatic scene in Batman #37, which echoed Batman’s origin. Since then, Duke has bounced around Gotham orphanages, searching for his family and increasingly depending on himself over all others. Lee Bermejo gives Thomas’s dialogue and running internal monologue an endearing nerdiness and Jorge Corona infuses the issue’s action sequences with a nervy, confident style that brings readers directly into its protagonist’s head. He’s a relatable hero, trying to do his best but still making the wrong choice as often as he makes the right one.

Duke’s characterized throughout We are Robin #1 with elements reminiscent of almost all of the former Robins. His acrobatic combat during a schoolyard bout recall the graceful dangerous dance of Dick Grayson, his over-confident defiance of authority bears more than a little resemblance to Jason Todd and there are peaks of what made Tim Drake such a memorable sidekick. What most establishes Duke’s place in the issue, however, is his connection to Batman. When the mysterious new Robins arrive on the scene at issue’s end, they’re not interested in what Duke is capable of or what he’s been through. They just know he’s “hung with the bat” and that’s all he needs to get in.

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We are Robin establishes less than Robin: Son of Batman does but it does so in a particularly engaging way. Much like how Gotham Academy took its time to establish the mysteries around Olive Silvermane, the issue doesn’t answer much about the nature of the new Robins but their presence speaks volumes. In a story haunted by the Joker’s actions during Endgame, the establishment of a group of teens keeping Batman’s memory alive is a wonderful homage to ideas like online activism and inspiration through sacrifice. It’s a smart, thoughtful way to connect Bruce’s final fateful actions in Batman #40 to the new status quo.

We are Robin and Robin: Son of Batman both highlight what I love best about one of my favorite concepts in comics. Both boldly showcase the way Batman can change the future through inspiration, how he can prevent the next child from losing everything to one terrible day. More importantly though, both establish characters separate from a greater hero, giving writers and readers a whole new perspective on Gotham and its young protectors in a bold, exciting new world.

The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 4

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 10.39.32 PMI know this is (holy shit) three months into 2014 but at long last, here’s the top 20 series of 2013. This was an intensely contested category and I really had to whittle the list down to the very best of the best of the best. Let’s get into it.

The Next Generations – Awarded to the finest series of pictorials of the year.

Runners UpANXMEN2012013_int_LR-2-3
This was tough. All New X-Men somehow overcame a limited premise, several overly complicated story arcs, a tie-in to the underwhelming “Battle of the Atom” and some rickety character work to be a fantastic look at the X-Men through the ages and a reflection on how the series has changed. The Allred family overcame some rocky plotting by Matt Fraction and fixed FF, making it one of Marvel’s most unique and recognizable books on the market. Bringing Rafael Albuquerque onto Animal Man took it from an impressive title to one of DC’s finest off-key horror books and a consistent source of nightmare imagery and heartwarming scenes of characters fighting for what’s important.

Twentieth PlaceBruce-Banner-in-Indestructible-Hulk-2Indestructible Hulk

Mark Waid is a man who can redefine a character. Focusing on Banner, the jealous, hopelessly petty, intrinsically flawed monster underneath another monster is the focus and like in Waid’s Daredevil, he’s a character who finally wants to change his place in the world. While stories like “Agents of TIME” dragged along, Waid positioned Banner and Hulk as separate, albeit linked, characters looking to change, even when the world and the people they surround themselves with aren’t so sure they’re ready.

Nineteenth PlaceuxmUncanny Avengers

Uncanny Avengers isn’t a perfect book. It’s often barely a good one. What makes this story unique is that it’s always bold, always pushing the envelope, always relentlessly putting the characters in the worst possible position and watching them hopelessly crawl back from the brink. It’s a technique Rick Remender perfected on Uncanny X-Force but it’s given new weight in Uncanny Avengers with a team who can’t afford to let its secrets stay locked away. Each issue is an event, a talking point, an upcoming Twitter firestorm and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Eighteenth PlaceScreen-Shot-2013-10-05-at-8.33.07-PMStar Wars

If there’s a better introduction to the Expanded Universe than Brian Wood’s Star Wars, I don’t know what it is. Taking the familiar bits of the canon and slowly bringing in the looser character relationships, motivations and world building, Star Wars is a master class in how to make a licensed book work for diehard fans and newcomers alike. Evocative, recognizable and classically nostalgic, it’s a book that makes a galaxy far far away feel never more reachable.

Seventeenth Placehooded-figure-green-lanternGreen Lantern

After years of guidance and hundreds of issues of wonderfully realized worlds, Geoff Johns handed over the franchise he resurrected in a single issue of Green Lantern. While Robert Venditti has done a commendable job moving the series forward and keeping the book a must-read, Johns’ deliberate, wonderfully realized moments between Hal Jordan and Sinestro in Green Lantern #20 made this book an instant classic and cemented his place in the Corps’ history.

Sixteenth PlaceNova's_lifeNova

Casting off years of complicated backstories and Marvel’s often arcane space baggage paid off by bringing Sam Alexander home in Nova. A wonderfully realized, empathetic and true portrait of growing up young, poor and without much guidance, Sam is the perfect character to try to fight for what he believes is a galaxy worth saving and his attempts to right intergalactic wrongs are touching, bold, attention grabbing and often hilarious. Nova often achieves the impossible, being a well written, fun and passionate book, as well suited for first time readers as Marvel junkies alike.

Fifteenth PlaceScreen Shot 2013-08-23 at 12.41.31 PMWonder Woman

A rare example of a writer and artists’ voices defining a DC character, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s take on Wonder Woman is the boldest book by a traditionally conservative publisher and the results are often stunning. Focusing on Diana’s twisted family dynamics and her attempts at creating a more stable home, Wonder Woman is a deeply human story on the way we reflect and deny the families who define us.

Fourteenth PlacesagaSaga

Last year’s winner, Saga continues to be one of the biggest success stories in independent comics and one of the best examples of the diversity of stories the medium can tell. A “Pulp Fiction”-esque storytelling device brought all the characters together in 2013, letting them bounce off each other and haunt their actions until only love can define them. Saga continues to be an electrifying read and the wait for the next issue is always far too painful.

Thirteenth Placebatman-242Batman

In 2013’s Batman #21, an unmasked Bruce Wayne raises a youthful middle finger to the man who will one day be his archenemy. It’s a defiant wonderful moment but it might as well be Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo flipping off the established canon. “Year Zero” has been a wonderfully realized, exuberant and fresh take on the early days of Batman, both respectful to Frank Miller’s “Year One,” and willing to critique, prod and kill its idols. Snyder’s Batman is everything the New 52 should be: fresh, respectful, modern, hip and unbelievably ready to slash and burn.

Twelfth Placeku-xlargeHawkeye

Matt Fraction and his stable of artists went bigger, more ambitious and infinitely more complicated in their second year of Hawkeye and that’s why it’s on the list but also why it’s not higher up. While the investigation into Gil’s death, Kate’s trip to California and the return of Barney were all great character driven beats, an inconsistent shipping schedule, missed deadlines and switching publication orders left fans wanting more and not in the most friendly way imaginable.

Eleventh Placegg1Guardians of the Galaxy

Brian Michael Bendis skills are all in display in his revamp of Guardians of the Galaxy, his whip smart dialogue, wonderful characterizations, fight choreography and gripping story telling. Like Nova, Bendis built on the past without being enslaved by it and made the Guardians more than just a team of space pirates but a group of heroes like no one else in the Marvel Universe.

Tenth Placeaaron-02Wolverine and the X-Men

What defines the X-Men? Is it their deep history, their very recognizable and personal struggles, their complicated romantic lives or the ongoing stories which define a race and people? Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men takes all of those disparate bits and brings them together into a single cohesive package. Wolverine and the X-Men is the perfect look at why the X-Men work as a franchise and despite some missteps (I don’t think anyone will look back favorably on the Frankenstein’s Murder Circus arc), it’s a stunning, beautiful book, always ready to surprise and remind readers why they’ve invested so much in these characters and this world.

Ninth PlaceAstro-City_1_PanelAstro City

The return of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is more than just the return of a series which redefined comics. It’s the culmination of all the ways the medium has grown and changed since the series went on hiatus in 2009. Astro City is a wonderful reminder of how a deconstruction of  comics can work, not stripping down and destroying the characters and world but celebrating the way the medium works and how people exist within it.

Eighth Placetumblr_mtyn4dOw4m1qj97xmo1_1280Fatale
In the wake of murder and madness at the end of Fatale #10, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had a chance to go bigger and broader with their tale of Jo and the monsters who pursue and they made a splash in a huge way. Going back through the past and ending the year in the ’90s Seattle Grunge scene gave the title the same amount of freedom and energy Jo has found. It’s a book mercilessly in command of the story and characters it slowly unravels, pushing Jo and the Bishop closer and closer together into what is sure to be an Earth shaking conclusion in the final year of Fatale.

Seventh Placenew-avengers4-strangeNew Avengers

One of the masterstrokes of Marvel’s soft relaunch has been the company’s decision to pay attention to the past without being beholden to it. In New Avengers, past relationships haunt a team of Earth’s most brilliant minds and the odds the group is up against weigh heavy on their hearts. While dealing with the extraplanar incursions is the narrative thrust of the series, Jonathan Hickman’s writing is sharpest when delving into the minds and motives of his characters. Black Panther and Namor’s tense declaration of war, Reed Richards tentative, inquisitive interrogations of the unknowable Black Swan and Stephen Strange’s slow descent into a power he doesn’t know if he can control create a perfect mix of internal and external tension. These are characters with a history and presence in the Marvel Universe and by pushing them against a threat they don’t understand and have never faced has let all of what makes them icons shine.

Sixth Placemanhattanproj-13-review-9_copyManhattan Projects

In Manhattan Projects, absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely, the illusion of absolute power corrupts everyone absolutely. As the team secures its place as the defacto leaders of Earth’s future by killing, bribing and dominating anyone who stands against them, their reach finally extends their grasp. It’s just a matter of time until every unleashed horror collapses in on this team of opportunistic scientific schemers and their grand plans and grander delusions make every issue a tragic, stunning, revolting must-read.

Fifth PlaceincBatman Incorporated

Everything ends and everything begins again. It’s a maxim Grant Morrison has often repeated in his mainstream comics but it’s never been so vivid, so dark and so wonderfully daring than in the conclusion of Batman Incorporated. It takes a ruined Gotham, the death of his son and a final battle with the only woman who could have stopped him to take Batman and Bruce Wayne from a child fighting for the wrongs his parents suffered to a father fighting for the children he’s losing and it’s pulled off with aplomb. Morrison’s operatic conclusion to his years of Batman stories is a perfect end to one of the best DC stories of all time and like the ever-present serpent eating its own tale, the last moments of Batman Incorporated show a future for Bruce Wayne that will only begin again, eternally and forever.

Fourth PlaceScreen-Shot-2014-01-26-at-2.52.42-PMEast of West

Every issue of Jonathan Hickman’s masterpiece in progress, East of West, contains the same line: “We did this to ourselves.” East of West is singularly focused on an apocalypse of our own making, a far flung, splintered dystopia not so different from the world we live in. The end of the world isn’t an act of God, despite the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s an act of very mortal hubris, of greed, blind faith, betrayal and xenophobia and between layers of post-modern myth, biblical apocrypha and buckets of blood, it’s a strangely prescient warning of the doom and divisions we still blindly build for ourselves.

Third PlaceBoomerang07The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

Failure is very, very funny. I guess let’s back up from there. Failure is only funny if it’s backed with delusion, if a person only believes they can’t possibly fail or doesn’t even recognize their failures as such. Fred Meyers doesn’t think he can fail. He’s created a new Sinister Six (with only five members), broken his friends out of police custody (which he put them in), killed the traitor in his organization (actually, that didn’t really work out) and planned a daring heist against one of the most dangerous men in New York (under false pretenses). He’s falling apart at the seams and doesn’t even seem to realize it and the rest of his team of narcissists, functioning alcoholics and has-beens are always taking falls and hits they don’t quite deserve. It’s a series which could fall into tragic melodrama just as easily as it lands its humor and that’s what makes The Superior Foes of Spider-Man so special.

Second PlaceXML2X-Men Legacy

X-Men Legacy is indefinable. It’s neither superhero comic nor deconstruction, neither celebration nor character study. It’s something in between but also separated from. Through David Haller, the man once known as Legion, Si Spurrier and a host of artists have examined the nature of heroism with a character who would reject that label. X-Men Legacy is supremely confident in the story it’s telling, one with both world spanning and very personal consequences and stakes and that care shows in every moment. This is an opening statement from Spurrier and a cult classic in waiting, a wonderful story about what being a hero means and the sacrifices and choices that need to be made to get there.

First Placedaredevil_30_panelDaredevil

“Try the red one.” Spoken by the super-sensitive ninja, Ikari in Daredevil #25, it’s a line that walks the balance of horror and humor, of weakness and strength, desperation and victory. It’s the line that made me fall hard for Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Focused on giving Matt Murdock a chance to escape the sadness, death and desperation which has embodied the character since Frank Miller’s turn at the helm, Waid gave his characters a chance to be more than the sum of their parts. Murdock isn’t just a hero when he puts on the suit. He’s a hero when he sits in a cancer ward, a hero when he tries to rebuild his personal life, a hero everytime he reaches out to someone in need. No longer is Matt Murdock defined by tragedy, he’s defined by how he averts it, how he shapes his life and the lives around him with passion, zeal and a never-say-die attitude. Neither indebted to the past nor embarrassed by it, Daredevil soars by letting a character take control and make a difference, or at least let him try. 

The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 1

WHATIFAVX2013002_int_LR-3-4It’s the end of the year and so that means it’s time to look back at this year in comics with the returned Vulcan Quiche Awards. There are new categories this year, many of which will be looking at the top ten issues or books of the year but it’s time to recognize the best miniseries or one-shot of the year.

The Shorties  – Saluting excellence in a limited series or one-shot.

Runners Upthanos-rising001
Jason Aaron and Simone Bianchi really tried to give the titular character a strong origin story in Thanos Rising but just sort of made him look weak, pitiful, whiny and uninteresting, despite some standout moments. In the same way, What if…Avengers vs. X-Men stuck the landing and hit massive high points but didn’t have the time to really sell the dangerous insanity of Magneto’s schemes. Batman Black and White is exactly the kind of artist and writer showcase DC needs to be doing much more often but the series massive shifts in quality couldn’t land it a top spot.

Fifth PlaceAssassinationofadandookuStar Wars: Agent of the Empire – Hard Target

It’s rare that Star Wars books get into the gritty details of how the Imperials maintained control of a vast and diverse galaxy but the Agent of the Empire series has always looked at the politics and compromises which go into control through the lens of Jahan Cross. The grizzled and ethically compromised spy, assassin and much more is dispatched to Alderaan to install a regime which will be supportive of Emperor Palpatine but the scheming of Adan Dooku and a double cross on Boba Fett make the operation much more difficult and bring many of the universe’s power players together to decide the fate of a planet which will soon be destroyed. It’s not a heady series but it’s a great, focused look at one of the most venerable pop culture franchises.

Fourth PlaceScreen Shot 2013-08-28 at 4.09.47 PMBatman Incorporated Special #1

The message of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman Incorporated is the idea that Batman is an eternal force, always in place to battle corruption and crime. He’s there, unchanging and unwavering but by series’ end, Bruce Wayne’s life and Batman’s empire is in shambles. There’s nothing left to build from. Taking some of the writers and artists intimately familiar with Morrison’s epic, Batman Incorporated Special #1 shows the effect Batman Incorporated has had on the DCU and the inspiration Bruce’s fight has had for a new generation of worldwide crime fighters. It’s a slightly more optimistic ending for one of the best Batman stories ever.

Third Placetumblr_mju3dz0CmO1s5k9amo1_1280Sledgehammer ’44

While Mike Mignola’s franchises have always had a great reverence for the sacrifices made by soldiers in World War II, Sledgehammer ’44 humanized and focused the death and destruction of the conflict to one man’s decision. After the Allies drop a steam-punk Iron Man in occupied France, one soldier has to decide if his soul is worth the cost of saving his comrades in arms. It’s a beautiful, wonderfully rendered series which focuses on the results of destruction more than the violence which caused it and with Sledgehammer ’44: Lightning War just starting, it’s nice to see the Hellboy franchise continue to focus on one of its most human and most tragic heroes.

Second PlaceBullseyes-booze-DDEOD4Daredevil: End of Days

“Matt Murdock was my best friend. I don’t think I was his best friend.” This line, part reverence, part obligation and part self-pity define the quest of once famed journalist Ben Urich as he goes about trying to recreate the legacy of the slain Daredevil in this exceptional series. Like the surviving villains and heroes, Ben is haunted by the memories of the angel of Hell’s Kitchen and defined by his actions, long after Matt meets his bitter end. Daredevil: End of Days is all about collapse, the fall and changes in a city, characters and world but it’s hopeful and willing to look to the future and influences one man can have in a world which seems to eternally resist such change. It’s some of Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack’s defining work on the character and the legacy The Man Without Fear created but it’s also a fitting end to the series defining run these two creators had.

First PlacemaxresdefaultAmerican Vampire – The Long Road to Hell

Scott Snyder doesn’t spend a lot of time on the innocent victims in American Vampire. While the series is mostly the tale of a vendetta between the psychotic Skinner Sweet and his once victim-turned-hunter Pearl, it’s also a retelling of American culture in the 20th Century, namely how “The Other” is viewed. More often than not, The Other in the series are the vampires themselves, but The Long Road to Hell focuses on a recently turned couple, slowly figuring out how and if they can feed themselves ethically on the blood of human cattle. Unbeknownst to them, their moral barometer, vampire hunter Travis Kidd, is coming and no one can survive. It’s a single issue bold enough to cast one of its premier heroes as a cold, remorseless serial killer and it does so confidently and with aplomb, making the wait until the new miniseries in March even more difficult.

Coming Up: 2013 was a year defined by characters and relationships, with all the companies angling to invest readers in their icons. Let’s recognize the characters that defined the year and broke barriers over the last 12 months.

“Gotham’s ready to commit suicide” – Grant Morrison sets the stage for a finale in Batman Incorporated #12

UZW8v4jFor the last few years, Damian Wayne has been the face of the Batman franchise, a child destined to the be the savior of a twisted future, the son of humanity’s greatest greatest savior, a child of two twisted worlds. His life from conception, to training, to redemption, to heroism is one of the greatest modern stories DC has produced and Grant Morrison’s attention and care for Damian made the character’s death such an emotional gut punch which echoed through the Batman franchise.

It’s been time for Bruce to have his revenge. One of the most interesting things about the death of Damian has been the way Bruce has had to really take the role of a father, one dealing with death. For his entire life, he’s been the child mourning a father and now, he’s finally had to grow up, to stop being a vengeful and wounded son playing at being a man. He’s still struggling, still impulsive but deep down, Batman has another child who needs his protection more than ever. Gotham needs saving and as Bruce says, “she needs Batman Incorporated.”

batman-inc-10-021While many of Morrison’s scripts have been labyrinthine essays exploring the psyches of his characters, this week’s Batman Incorporated #12 is basically a straight fight comic. The showdown between Batman and The Heretic has been a long time coming and Morrison and Chris Burnham devote most of the book’s pages to the knock-down, drag-out brawl between the characters.  It still works, namely with Morrison’s love of all eras of Bat-history and a creative visual language. I mean, Batman is strapped into the most ’90s armor ever, falling onto blimps, yelling about jet-packs and and waiting for Talia in the animated Bat-cave. It’s that attention to all era detail and visual storytelling which elevates the dark, violent subject.

Burnham deserves plenty of attention as well. One of the things he’s not been praised enough for is his unconventional panel work. He’s great at using sized panels with decreasing heights to emphasize the verticality and brutal height of The Heretic and Batman’s battle and each shattered diagonal fight sequence gives a greater sense of impact and force to every blow.

BatmanInc12panel2There are few comic book stories which have maintained such a prolonged sense of tension, menace and intrigue as Grant Morrison’s expansion of Batman beyond Gotham City. While his early work on the character was great, it wasn’t until Batman’s return from the past, the beginning of Dick and Damian’s team up and the formation of Bruce’s world wide war on crime that the series turned from a franchise into a bold, innovative and creator defined must-read comic. I can only hope the final issue offers a suitable end to Morrison’s greatest work to date.

Stray Observationsku-xlarge

  • I’m not the biggest Nick Spencer fan by any stretch of the imagination. Even after a much better issue #5, Secret Avengers is still probably the worst book of Marvel Now. That being said, I didn’t have a bigger laugh this week than the one I found when Shocker and Speed Demon hold up a pet store in Superior Foes of Spider-Man #1. I can’t wait for the next issue.
  • Speaking of series creeping up on their finale, Dial H #14 has continued to expand the horizons of the series’ premise as the team reaches The Operator. I do have some concerns that China Mielville will be able to tie the series together in a satisfying ending.
  • Daredevil has had a creative renaissance in the last few years and the “Dark Nights” miniseries is a suitable companion piece to “End of Days” and “The Man Without Fear.” This week’s #2 explored everything that makes the very human Matt Murdock one of New York City’s greatest heroes.
  • If Superior Foes of Spider-Man offered this week’s biggest laugh, What If…AvX #1 offered the biggest gasp. Even if Magneto’s decision to become the face of mutants doesn’t make much sense, that final splash page packs a punch I wouldn’t have expected in a What If… story.

The Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 4

WolverineXmen17It’s all wrapping up and it’s time to award the single best series of 2012. There was some fierce competition and some of the best titles of the year are left out in the cold but this is the second biggest award of the year. Let’s get to it.

The Next Generations – Awarded to the finest series of pictorials of the year.

Honorable MentionsBatman-Robin-Zone-001

There are really too many to count but a couple of series nearly cracked the top five. Uncanny X-ForceAnimal Man and FF all were in the running but for one reason or another, were left behind. Peter Tomasi’s Batman and Robin recovered from a brief Night of the Owls crossover misstep and focused on Damian’s need to prove himself to Dick, Jason and Tim led to one of the best moments of 2012 as the Robins join together in their own beautiful way. Jason Aaron’s exceptional Wolverine and the X-Men was just beat out for fifth place, mostly on the strength of three issues that defined the X-franchise, both pre- and post- Avengers vs. X-Men.

Fifth Placescan0007Saucer Country

In an election year which inevitably focused on broken promises, preconceptions and verbal badger baiting on both sides of the aisle, Saucer Country focused on an idealistic candidate with a past but the series’ focus on politics all serves the overarching narrative. While Arcadia lets her alien abduction become the focus of her presidential campaign, Professor Kidd focuses on the mythology, a complex series of contradicting narratives that form the body of not only UFO lore, but also of how we understand all stories. In the fantastic issue #6, Kidd’s speech on the way missing time impacts memory is fragmented, broken into increasingly smaller panels, showing the way readers are forced to fill in the blanks themselves through memory, knowledge, intuition and drawing on common myth. It’s an excellent series that showed it’s hand brilliantly in the first issue and continues to be one of Vertigo’s best.

Fourth Placeinc-bannerBatman Incorporated: Volume 2

Grant Morrison’s epic, gripping, poetic magnum opus has been a propulsive, incredibly readable take on Batman’s struggle for the souls of Gotham, his son and himself. It’s a book with a sense of pace that few, even Scott Snyder’s vaunted run on Batman, can’t match and each issue is another incredibly powerful look at a man who cannot and will not be stopped. This is the Batman book of 2012 and when it ends in 2013, I’m sure it will have a chance to hold that title again.

Third Place2719154-hawkeye4_03Hawkeye

Matt Fraction has become one of Marvel’s premier talents and his take on the Avengers’ archer shows why. Taking Clint back to his roots and showing him as the guy next door has highlighted his heroics and in storylines such as “The Tape,” his incredible, “Die Hard”-esque leaps into action are highlighted even more. It’s a series with charm, laughs and plenty of action, weirdly making it unique in a medium that’s increasingly been played for something entirely different.

Second Placescreen-shot-2012-07-09-at-9-52-48-pmManhattan Projects

Jonathan Hickman’s ever-growing cast of scientific geniuses, opportunists, schemers, computers, aliens, talking dogs and inter-dimensional doppelgängers have built a twisted look at the scientific world at the onset of the Cold War. Manhattan Projects is downright scary at times, showing men without ethics manipulate, kill and conquer as they pursue nothing but their own goals. It’s an inadvertent character study, mostly of the sinister, uncontrollable Oppenheimer and the moralistic but tortured Feynman and the ways their ideologies, beliefs and methods differ as a new world is created, corrupted and discarded.

And the Nextie goes to…xlargeSaga

Brian K. Vaughan did it again, creating an instant classic of sci-fi wonder, love, death and life in the first 8 issues of Saga. Vaughan has never produced a bad series and Saga is impressive even by his incredible standards, with instantly relatable characters, complex and morally compromised villains, a believable quest and the sort of adult interpersonal relationships rarely seen in comics these days. Protagonists Marko and Alana have such a believable connection, making their occasional spats all the more painful and their love all the more powerful. The story, told in retrospect by the couple’s newly born daughter, Hazel, has a wonderfully knowing combination of child-like innocence and a bright worldliness, perfectly suiting the space opera style of this majestic, must-read series.

Next Up: The lights are scanning and the drums are rolling as the best single issue of 2012 is crowned.

 

“Well, it isn’t our dapper dark knight” : 10 intriguing Batman stories that don’t feature the Caped Crusader

Batman has long been one of DC’s most enduring heroes and one of the most recognizable characters in American pop culture. He’s also one that is ripe for examination, parody and re-appropriation. What makes this more and more interesting is the way in which different authors have used the Batman archetype to explore different universes and to examine the character in ways that he hadn’t been looked at in his own universe. Some great books even manage to spin the character into someone that could be interpreted far differently than the hero we all know.

1. “Astro City: Dark Age Part 1”

In Kurt Busiek’s epic retelling of the way that comics evolved from the late silver age into the hyper violent and complex bronze age, Street Angel plays a moderately small role. A vigilante battling crime in the streets while the more powerful heroes battle against the intergalactic enemies that are taking on the city, Street Angel is hoping to keep his moral code against killing as the city descends into chaos but as Silver Agent begins to make the difficult choices, Angel has to face that the pain he brings criminals may not be worse than killing them. When we last see him, he’s sitting in his misery, not knowing whether his future in Astro City will be an accommodating one.

2.  “The Duck Knight Returns” – Darkwing Duck

Frank Miller is may be my favorite comics writer ever but he’s really easy to mock. If you know his best known work, “The Dark Knight Returns,” you’re going to have a lot of fun with Darkwing Duck’s take on the story. When he finds his city completely under the control of publicly traded organizations with businesses even controlling the police force. He’s driven to put back on the cape and sombrero and bring justice to St. Canard. Making everything more fun, classic “DuckTales” characters  contribute to the Darkwing Duck adventure in major ways.

3.  “Revenge is a Dish Best Served Three Times” – The Simpsons

Bartman has been aluded to many, many times in “The Simpsons” but in a direct parody of “Batman Begins,” Bart tells a story about how awesome and useful revenge can be. It might be worth watching just to see Snake taking the role of Joe Chill.

4. “Showdown” – Batman: The Animated Series 

Batman and Robin both show up briefly in “Showdown” but most of the episode is a flashback about one of Ras al Ghul’s sons being defeated by one of Old Gotham’s best killers, Jonah Hex. Its an invigorating episode, filled with great fights, an awesome plot and a great peak at the relationship and respect that Batman and Ras have for each other, despite being enemies.

5. “Asro City: Confession”

Busiek’s written Batman for the Justice League as well as in his exceptional “Trinity” series but its clear that he has a soft spot for the violent hero that could face down anything and anyone. “Confession” stars Astro City’s other Dark Knight analogue, the Confessor, and is told through the voice of his sidekick, describing a series of slayings in Shadow Hill, a bizarre storyline featuring alien invasions and corrupt government officials and a hero in black who’s controlled by his own moral code as well as struggling with who he is. This is less of an analysis of Batman and more of an engaging what-if story, but it does delve into the mindset of the teenage Robins who give the dark knight their allegiance.

6. “Holy Terror”

By no means is “Holy Terror” a good book. Its misogynistic, utterly dark, misanthropic, overly violent, overly masculine and jingoistic. Frank Miller’s mess of a 9/11 graphic novel was meant to be about Batman’s hunt for Osama bin Laden but ended up being a book about dull Batman and Catwoman analogues shooting terrorists. On its own, “Holy Terror” is an utter failure but it does almost make one consider what it was that Miller was really intending to communicate in the thematically similar “The Dark Knight Returns.”

7. “Battle for the Cowl”

Sadly, Grant Morrison will probably be best remembered for killing Batman in the frankly, pretty terrible “Final Crisis.” That being said, he was able to craft much more engaging stories about the Dark Knight, namely “Batman Incorporated” but “Battle for the Cowl” is an enormously engaging series about the future of Gotham. As Bruce Wayne battles his way through time, the Bat-family engages in a city encompassing war for who will wear the cowl. Morrison is obsessed with Robin and he shows it here, developing Dick Grayson into an adult hero as well as showing the future role that Damian would play in fighting for the future of the city. Much like Jeph Loeb’s “Dark Victory,” “Battle for the Cowl” explores the ways in which the Robins have to accept power and what the future of holding this power can hold.

8. “Kabuki: Circle of Blood”

Perhaps the best comic series of the ’90s, David Mack’s “Kabuki” is an enthralling fusion of neo-noir, international espionage, World War II fiction, metatextual analysis and “Alice in Wonderland” imagery. The story, initially a battle between the agents of the Noh and a terrorist group, the narrative blooms into a story about Japanese trauma, living up to the memories of a parent and leaving a better world than the one you came into. The story of Ukiko, a child orphaned after her mother’s murder, and her eventual transformation into the assassin Kabuki borrows heavily from the Batman mythos and repeated uses of Alice and Wonderland imagery, particularly borrowed from Grant Morrison’s “Serious House on Serious Earth,” ties Kabuki very strongly to a certain Western hero. However, the way that Mack grounds his hero in real world trauma and extistential angst makes us view both the minds of Bruce Wayne and Batman in a considerably more nuanced and fractured way.

9. “Death of the Goon” – The Goon #39

The list of characters, writers, artists, trends and storylines that are skewered in Eric Powell’s delirious parody issue of superheroes is nearly endless and he manages to mock the Batman/Catwoman relationship mercilessly. In a series of panels where Goon decides to become an interracial street avenger who stops people who realized that “hanging out in an alley would really pay off,” he saves a woman only to go into a long monologue about why he can’t fall in love. Meanwhile, Franky checks “angst ridden monologue” off the list of tropes that need to appear in their superhero issue. Of course, that’s all before Goon and Franky decide to become gay Republican Puerto Rican socialist transvestites from space who believe in Jesus. You know, solely for the media attention.

10. “Sin City: The Hard Goodbye”

After smoking his 400th cigarette of the day and fucking a hooker with a heart of gold, Frank Miller spits on the piss slick floor of his apartment, swallows a mouthfull of whiskey, curses and wonders whether there’s a way he could add more hardcore violence to neo-noir. After “The Dark Knight Returns,” Miller devoted himself to putting even more violence into a story about a man with nothing to live for, trying to save a city that long ago lost its’ soul. This is the Batman that Miller wishes he would have written and it serves as a better companion piece to “Year One” and his other works than “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”

“Papa don’t kill Terminators” – 7 ways “Tomb Raider” could have avoided the sexual assault trap

The constant videogame news stream has nearly gotten to the point of players knowing the whole game before they even pop a disc into their console. Unfortunately, this is ending up causing a lot of controversy that may have been otherwise overlooked. Let’s take the “Tomb Raider” rape scene for instance. In an interview with Kotaku, the unreleased game’s executive producer said that the intent was to reduce and debase Lara Croft, “turning her into a caged animal.” And of course, what better way to do that than attempted sexual assault.

I’ve hated on a lot of writers, directors and artists for the use of sexual assault as a plot device but really, I don’t think its an enormous problem when its treated with respect. The problem with the Tomb Raider controversy was the way that it nearly implied that the only way to turn the character into a killer was to make her a rape victim, rather than a determined, self made treasure seeker. Of course, even that can be problematic when we look back at what Lara Croft is primarily known for.

We all know that we don’t need female characters to be defined by trauma, particularly sexual trauma. With that being said, let’s find some other pop culture examples of female heroine’s origin stories and see how they’d work out in the Tomb Raider reboot’s premise. At the end of each entry, we’ll port the character traits over to Lara, assuming that the basics of the game, namely that it takes place on an island where the prime objectives are survival and escape, hold true.

1. Sarah Connor – Terminator

Where “Terminator 2” gets a lot of credit for its still amazing special effects, the first “Terminator” film is vastly forgotten, despite the incredible characterization of Connor. Her transformation from bystander, to confused participant, to terrorist, to robot killer, to savior of the future is a joy to watch and her moment of catharsis is so well earned. We, as viewers, know just as she does, that the future can be saved.

Characterizing Croft: Lara’s time on the island is guided by another, more experienced character. They eventually die, forcing Lara to become a killer and survivor in the unforgiving environment.

2. Kate Kane – Batwoman

Kate Kane would have been a hero even without putting on the cape. After quitting an illustrious career at West Point because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she joined with her General father to hunt down the terrorists that killed her mother. Of course, things weren’t what they seemed and Kate was forced to kill her own sister, putting her into a tailspin that turned her into the brutal but compassionate Batwoman that’s become a fan favorite.

Characterizing Croft: Whoever ended up marooning Lara on the island may have some secret motives, particularly related to the Croft fortune. She has to figure out how to survive and get back home if she’s going to protect what’s hers.

3. Hitgirl – “Kick-Ass”

I hate Mark Millar’s “Kick-Ass” so much that it physically hurts me to even mention it. But, y’know, she’s raised by her dad to kill. Its really lame and exploitative.

Characterizing Croft: Someone else on the island teaches Lara to be merciless, killing everyone in her path. Hey, its not good but at least its not attempted rape.

4. Katniss Everdeen – “The Hunger Games”

Speaking of things that I really don’t like, the protagonist of the eponymous teen series at least had a strong base for a developing character. Katniss had trained to survive in the depressed village she grew up in and her development to one of the champions of the games required her to use those same hunting skills for murder.

Characterizing Croft: Lara’s trained well with her trademark dual pistols but she’s never had to turn the barrel on an actual person. To survive the trials of the island, she’s going to have to do just that.

5. Miranda Lawson – “Mass Effect 2”

Sure, Miranda was a cybernetically augmented cloned killer, but what motivates her abilities is a single minded desire to do what’s right by her more vulnerable sister. Her dedication to protecting the one innocent is even enough to help her break from Cerberus.

Characterizing Croft: Sure, maybe she would have been able to simply stay alive on the island. That’s not going to be enough when someone close to Lara disappears and she realizes that she’ll do anything to get them back safely.

6. Talia al Ghul – “Batman Incorporated”

I mentioned last week that I adored the way Grant Morrison finally gave Talia a motivation for her attack on the dark knight, a quest to find out who she is and with the goal of getting out from under the long shadow of her father.

Characterizing Croft: The best characters are the ones that have motivations that we can associate with. Lara’s potential quest to find out more about her lineage and where she fits into the Croft family could be a deeply compelling reason to help keep her alive on the island.

7. Ripley – “Alien”

Ripley doesn’t seem as if she’s going to be the one to survive the first encounter with the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” but she’s the only person to get out alive. How does she do it? Pretty simple really, she’s smarter, braver and more willing to make the harsh decisions than anyone else on board.

Characterizing Croft: You know what turns Lara into a killer? Necessity. She’s going to survive, going to do what she has to do to get off the island and she dares anyone to stop her.

“De-tec-tive…”: Batman Incorporated #2 gives a proper New 52 introduction to the Al Ghul family

Talia’s motivations for battling the dark knight’s worldwide project have been mysterious since she appeared at the end of “Leviathan Strikes,” and by the end of the second issue, her plans aren’t crystal clear. That, however, isn’t my question about this issue.

My question is why.

After the first issue’s cliffhanger of leaving Damian bleeding out from Goatboy’s sniper round, Morrison leads readers to the hideout of Ras al Ghul where he is accosted by the leader of Leviathan, Talia. Its abundantly clear that this isn’t a friendly visit. The opening, which wonderfully shows the seduction of Talia’s mother as well as the birth sets up her intents for her father.

Naturally, Morrison feels the totally unnecessary need to fuck up continuity, changing Talia’s lineage again but I’d have more of a problem with it if the whole thing wasn’t so damn entertaining. Rushing through Talia’s training, her time in college, Raj’s battle with his father and the “birth” of Damian, Morrison and Burnham do a great job catching up readers on one of their favorite characters and why she may have started the mission that she’s on.

For seasoned fans of the Bat-family, there is exceedingly little new material to dig into. That sort of is a good thing, particularly because the rest of the issue does so much to color her character and motivations both as the Demon Head’s daughter and as a super criminal on her own. That being said, Talia does take some manner of control over the League of Assassins, puts Ras under house arrest and reveals that Damian didn’t die last issue.

This was really my only gripe with the whole issue. Yeah, we all knew that Damian wasn’t dead and that Morrisson was pulling a cheap one at the end of Batman Incorporated 1 but he does it with no sense for drama. In an issue that’s all about Talia’s development from an innocent girl to a killer and mastermind, it’d be nice to show how her personal parallel character survived. If Morrison wasn’t interested in doing this same thing, why would he have Damian survive the bullet and then write it off in just a single enigmatic sentence. Its always been clear that Morrison adores Damian Wayne but its hard to see why when he treats the character like this.

I really enjoyed Batman Incorporated 2 a lot, mostly for what it did for Talia, who has long been one of the most underdeveloped of Batman’s rogues gallery and its interesting enough to make the lack of plot advancement still worth it. Hearing just a little of her plans for Leviathan as well as the way she feels about her father are sure to make the next few issues of one of the best books on the market almost impossible to wait for.