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. 

“No Fear” – Recent departures drive home DC’s editorial problems

ivampheader-700x300One of the pillars of my belief system is that I always assume whatever Rob Liefeld says is wrong. It’s gotten me this far. When Liefeld went on a Twitter rant in August, announcing his departure from the New 52 due to editorial interference, I assumed he was deflecting. Liefeld has been known to be hard to work with since his early days at Marvel and the formation of Image in the ’90s and I assumed this was another moment of the impetuous writer and artist trying to play at biting the hand that fed.

But, what if he was right? What if editorial oversight isn’t just letting DC bully writers with Liefeld’s name recognition but also anyone willing to sign on for a project?

Two notable creators left DC this afternoon: Andy Diggle, who was solicited for an upcoming run on Action Comics, and Joshua Hale Fialkov, of I, Vampire and solicited for a run on Green Lantern Corps and Red Lanterns in June. Admittedly, I was more shocked by Fialkov’s announcement, as he had received critical accolades for I, Vampire and had garnered excitement for both series in the Green Lantern family after having been announced for the job only a month ago.

shadowlandWhile not speaking to media outlets, Fialkov released an abbreviated version of his reasons for leaving the company on his blog. He writes:

“There were editorial decisions about the direction of the book that conflicted with the story I was hired to tell, and I felt that it was better to let DC tell their story the way they want. I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’ll miss working with the entire Green Lantern team…This was not an easy decision to make emotionally or financially, but, I’m sure it was the right decision for both me, and for the Green Lantern books.”

So, what could those plans possibly be? I wrote about DC’s push for increased serialization as well as easily marketable crossover and event stories as they pertained to Death of the Family but Fialkov seems to be pointing to a much more endemic problem in the company, one that Liefeld and Diggle both alluded to. Writers don’t seem to have any control of the properties they’ve been contracted or hired for.

1063192-guy_1Bob Harras has held one of the most public tenures as Editor-In-Chief at DC and he’s certainly not a name that brings a smile to the faces of a lot of comics fans. Presiding over Marvel during the company’s near bankruptcy as well as the rightfully maligned Clone Saga and Heroes Reborn, Harras has run something of a lodge club at DC since he rose to the editorial position in 2010. While he was clearly comfortable with co-publisher and former co-worker at Wildstorm Jim Lee, Harras seemed to want to get the band back together and brought over plenty of old names from Marvel’s dark days to fill out the New 52, including Liefeld, Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza.

Now, I’m not saying there was anything wrong about Harras early decisions involving the New 52, particularly who would be writing it. Harras assuredly wanted people he knew who would be able to roll out the new initiative rapidly, with the New 52 launching less than a year after he took the position. My problem is those people weren’t going to challenge Harras and it certainly could have had an influence on a sense of editorial control from on high.

1299339418Harras is most at home when he’s tapping into the same forces that mired Marvel in a creative and commercial flop. In a monthly interview on Comic Book Resources, Harras and Editorial Director Bobbie Chase discussed Liefeld’s allegations about editorial control over creators. Harras skirted the question once, saying:

“We’re not going into any specifics, because we can’t address any specifics because of those involved. The thing is, we want everyone who works for DC to be as happy as possible, to feel the creative process is as enjoyable as possible. If there are communication problems with talent, we will always work on it to improve our messaging, but on the whole, I think sometimes there are going to be disagreements. Sometimes there are going to be agreements — it’s all part of the editorial process. But as in anything, it’s something all of us can improve on in terms of communication.”

Harras seems to stress a team spirit in his first quote but he doesn’t really say anything. Of course there are going to be agreements and disagreements in the editorial progress but the way he says it seems to stress that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer to those disagreements. The goal of editorial isn’t to keep the creative process “as enjoyable as possible” but to work together with creative, making a project that suits both the publishers as well as the goals of creative. The role of an editor isn’t to be a mediator or judge but rather to be a co-creator in a work. Harras doesn’t seem to see it that way and he points to editorial successes in the New 52, namely a consistent shipping schedule and the success of massive crossovers, to try to strengthen the relationship between creators and editorial, saying.

“…Everyone should be trying to improve all aspects of communication. Everyone should be looking at the process and ways to improve. But in general, I think we’ve got a very talented bunch of creators working with us, putting out the New 52. We have exciting books every month, and that’s what I want to concentrate on. You always have to look at how you can do things better, but I’d also like to focus on what we do well, which is creating stories like “Death Of The Family,” and even “Rotworld,” that’s exciting fans…”

I think both Rotworld and Death of the Family were underwhelming tie-ins, one designed to boost the sales of a pair of critically successful niche titles and the other to continue to boost the sales of one of the company’s best selling titles, with Scott Snyder being involved in both crossovers. It’s more consolidation with the company putting Jeff Lemire, of Swamp Thing, of additional titles that seem to flag behind, including Justice League Dark and the new Constantine. Both are solid writers and both are company men, willing to be involved with massive tie-in projects such as Snyder and Lee’s forthcoming title Superman Unchained, released at a time obviously intended to capitalize on the release of the “Man of Steel” film.

92482472948294I don’t want to frown on Snyder, Lemire or any of the other talented writers and artists who have turned in great work under Harras, Chase and the New 52. Some of them, including Snyder, have defended editorial against Liefeld and others that have berated the changes in DC but there’s a feel of that control. I don’t think Harras is a puppet master and I don’t think he’s willing to dip into the work of his bestselling projects but I do think Harras has encouraged the long form storytelling that he was involved in at Marvel’s worst.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that approach from a commercial stand point and, as an editor, that’s one of Harras’ biggest concerns. I understand that and don’t blame him for that. My problem is that this approach doesn’t allow for creativity. Writers and artists with a unique perspective like Fialkov aren’t welcome at the table when their ideas don’t fit into a very narrow view for the company and it’s a narrow view that desperately needs widened if DC wants to succeed.

In last week’s interview at CBR, Harras mentions that he wants the New 52 to be open to more than just Batman and Superman titles, saying:

“I think what you’re going to see moving forward, like we’ve done already with the New 52, is that there’s always going to be a mix. We’re not going to give up on the idea of trying new things, new types of genres that led to things like “Animal Man” and “Swamp Thing.” We’re going to continue that: a nice, healthy mix of the bigger heroes, and some new heroes as well.”

It’s a nice thing to say but it implies a necessary risk and it doesn’t seem to be one that Harras is all that interested in taking. Creating comics that allow for consistent growth as well as fan interest and sales requires a partnership between writers, artists and editors, with each being willing to make the sacrifices to create the best products possible. That requires fearlessly allowing creators to tell their story without interference, oversight or the editorial demands.

“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.

The Vulcan Quiche Awards: The Grand Finale

BatmanRobin-Zone-017-e1344659731947This is it, the best single issue of the year. Who’s got it? I guess you should probably read on and validate my crippling lack of self worth.

The Sarek Scramble: Awarded to the single finest issue of the year.

Honorable Mentions2292173-g8image1
There were so many truly incredible offerings this year that it was difficult to whittle them down. Grifter #8 made a case for Nathan Edmondson’s gritty, hyper-violent 90s style with plenty of heart as Cole faces off with his possessed brother and shows himself as the most dangerous man in the DCU. Batgirl #11 and Batman and Robin #12 both showed off what exactly makes the Bat-Family into a force to be reckoned with and showed the honor, compassion and skill of two of its most interesting members. Green Lantern Annual #1 crystalized the power of the unconventional pairing of Sinestro and Hal as they take on Black Hand with the highest of stakes. The Goon #39 nearly cracked the top 5 with a hysterical, biting take on crossovers, retcons, rebrandings and pretty much every comic book cardinal sin The Big Two have committed since the ’90s.

Fifth PlaceSAUCER6_1Saucer Country #6

What happens when fiction begins to determine how reality is viewed? What is the risk of building knowledge from constructed myth? Saucer Country’s expository issue on the nature of the UFO mythology and how popular culture such as “The X-Files” and competing tales of experiences with aliens has created a fiction that is believed and reported on so much that it has become the truth. Writer Paul Cornell masterfully weaves what could have been an expository bore into a conversation that doesn’t just make readers reconsider all they know about the series but everything we know about fiction.

Fourth Placebatman 10.1 - CopyBatman #10

The chant of the owls at the end of Scott Snyder’s epic is, appropriately, “who?” Who is behind the attack from the Court of Owls? Who is Lincoln March? Who knew Gotham better than Batman? In Snyder’s epic battle of wits between Bruce Wayne and his (maybe?) lost brother Lincoln, the answer is worth more than the fight. Snyder wove a tale of secrets, battles and vengeance into his impossibly brilliant Court of Owls that climaxes not with a fist fight but with a verbal jousting match between two forces battling for the soul of a tortured city.

Third PlaceManhattan-Projects-4-bannerManhattan Projects #3

The theme of Jonathan Hickman’s excellent Manhattan Projects has always been power and it’s in the exceptional third issue that power is seized by the cabal of narcissistic scientists. It’s a tense issue. As FDR dies, Truman is sworn in, only to face a decision he doesn’t have a say in. The nuke will drop, the war will end, the Manhattan Projects will seize power and become the main force in the future of Earth. As Truman becomes more and more frantic, the future is increasingly sealed in an issue that shows the power a single group of individuals can wield in the face of their last enemy.

Second Placetumblr_mbptso0lpg1qky2i3o1_1280Wolverine and the X-Men #18

Heroes fall. It’s a classic myth cycle. Innocents die in the face of overwhelming darkness. Weakness is punished. The best of us fall to inspire others. In the exemplary issue of Jason Aaron’s series, Broo is helpless to his feelings as Idie offers him a chance to escape the creature he struggles against being. While Wolverine makes his final struggle against a Phoenix-empowered Cyclops, the students of the Jean Grey Academy dance and surrender to impulses, leading Broo to an inevitable conflict with Kade Kilgore of the Hellfire Club. It’s a heartbreaking issue, one that makes readers reconsider the struggles of the alien who so desperately wants to be one of the rejects and the failures he faces. This is excellency in comic book storytelling and the power of the denouement gives the characters the honor and importance they deserve.

And the Scramble goes to…tumblr_mdbjg6Ke9M1qky2i3o1_1280Hawkeye #3

Things have gotten dark. DC has embraced arc based storytelling in an effort to sell more tie-in titles in an uncharacteristically dark style. Marvel hopes to recapture the sales they found during Avengers vs. X-Men with massive, universe spanning events. Comics weren’t fun in 2012. They were bleak affairs, filled alternatively with bad men doing bad things and heroes battling other heroes. What happened to the medium we loved, heroes being heroic, fighting for justice and goodness in a world that rejected such things? Matt Fraction’s exceptional Hawkeye dared to be that experimental. In the fantastic one-and-done, Clint Barton engages in a massive car chase throughout New York City, showing off all the goofy arrows that made his Silver Age representation a character to watch. What’s best is this is an issue that’s fun, one with humor and action, tension and characters we care about and want to succeed. In an industry that’d rather see its characters dragged through the mud in an attempt to find something unique about them, it’s revolutionary to see a hero show what it means to care about others and prove it.

The First Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 2

noo1We’re rolling along with our annual awards, this time celebrating the best comic book arc of 2012. What startling revelations, bloody brawl or slow building horror is going to take it? I know but I have to burn through a bunch of words in order to tell you.

The Gateway to the Best – Saluting exemplary examples of arc based storytelling.

Fifth Placeprv13045_cov1-657x341Final Execution  – Uncanny X-Force

Rick Remender’s sprawling epic of violence, consequences, revenge and redemption concludes in a bloody fashion as the team goes up against a reformed Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and faces the long coming consequences of The Apocalypse Solution. It’s not perfect but it’s a book that always felt like it was building to this moment.

Fourth Place2720680-batwoman14_05World’s Finest – Batwoman

Batwoman struggled through the confusing tangled mess of its second arc, To Drown the World, but it came back with a vengeance. As the DEO pressures Kate Kane to track down the leader of the terrorist organization Medusa, she pairs up with Wonder Woman and goes monster hunting while Gotham is under siege from a mutated occultist Killer Croc, Bloody Mary and an army of mind controlled cultists. It’s a book that retains it’s trippy, fragmented, experimental sense of wonder but meshes it with legends, violence and the creeping dread of that which should not be.

Third Placetumblr_m8vdzhlvgJ1qhaplxo1_1280The Return of Black Hand – Green Lantern

Since Blackest Night, Black Hand has solidified himself as one of the most dangerous men in the universe. After killing himself on the Indigo home world, he’s resurrected by a black ring and back to his old ways. Hal and Sinestro’s battle with the villain in the last few issues of the arc show the characters at their best, working together, making sacrifices and proving their devotion to the Corps, even when it’s turning its back on them.

Second Place2339008-batman_09_page21Night of the Owls – Batman

Batman’s greatest strength has been Gotham. It’s a city he knows, one he understands and one he can control. So when an ancient, secret organization rises up and strikes Bruce where it hurts, things are going to get rough. It’s a great story-line, despite some less than exciting crossovers, with an incredible denouement which changes everything about Bruce’s knowledge of the city he saves.

And the Gateway goes to…manhattan
The Shadow Government Forms – Manhattan Projects

The most brilliant minds are capable of the most monstrous things in Jonathan Hickman’s strange tale of science, power and the Cold War. As Oppenheimer, Von Braun, Einstein and Feynman create a computerized FDR to control the United States’ future while the crazed Free Mason, Henry Truman, runs the puppet government, the Manhattan Projects expands into the stars. The first arc succinctly shows the cost men are willing to pay for power and draws parallels with the American atomic threat in the post WWII world in a way that’s horrifying, gleefully violent and occasionally, sadly, necessary.

Next Up: The world ends, reality TV rules, two classic robots team up, the dead return and much, much more as the best miniseries or one-shot is chosen.

The First Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 1

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It’s been a long year, what with the New 52 picking up steam, Marvel kinda-sorta-not-really relaunching, Grant Morrison having his own convention, people complaining about a theoretical Avengers line-up, people getting offended about sexism in one of the most traditionally sexists mediums but this time with occasional flashes of brilliance. Basically, it’s been another year in comics. So what better way to celebrate than counting down some of the best produced in 2012? I can’t think of one because I’m morbidly uncreative. We’ll be running countdowns all week, concluding with the best series and best single issues. For now, we’re focused on characters, namely the breakout comic stars of 2012.

The Riker’s Beardies- Awarded for excellence in character growth and increased visibility and fan support

Runner-Up

batcowpreviewDamian Wayne

For a lot of DC readers, this was the first introduction of the son of Batman, a callused, aggressive, violent, impetuous Robin introduced by Grant Morrison only about a year before the relaunch. Since then, he’s been softened and after teaming back up with Bruce after he returned from time, Peter Tomasi and Grant Morrison focused their efforts on creating a strong father-son dynamic between the characters. It’s worked and Damian is still an wonderfully conflicted, complicated character for it.

Fifth Place

2158238-s2Sinestro

In what is debatably Geoff Johns’ best book, a perfect buddy cop relationship was forged in the wake of Sinestro taking Hal’s ring at the conclusion of War of the Green Lanterns. Everything that made him one of the best villains of the DC universe continues to make him one of the best heroes. He’s a man who’s made many mistakes but has a single-minded vision of what the universe, the Corps and what Hal needs to survive. It’s already been too long since readers have seen him back in action.

Fourth Place

Animal-Man_2_panelAnimal Man – Buddy Baker

No book from the Big Two has successfully gone bigger, weirder and darker this year than Animal Man, which managed to balance family drama, body-horror and looming dread around the twisted tale of one of DC’s most forgotten heroes. Baker came out of the first issue with style and finesse but between battling totems in the Red, killing his own fleshy Rot-clone and descending with Swamp Thing into Rotworld, he’s become a bona fide niche hit.

Third Place

indestructiblehulk1_splashpageThe Hulk – Bruce Banner

As I said in the Marvel NOW! roundup, Banner’s gotten a big movie push in popularity and the House of Ideas is clearly trying to capitalize on that success in Indestructible Hulk. With only two, albeit exceptional, issues out, writer Mark Waid is bringing the same sense of gritty, violent reinvention to Hulk that he brought to Daredevil.

Second Place

2566927-broo_wolverine_the_x_men_15_ideaBroo

Broo is the heart and brains of the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning. A member of a race of old-school X-enemies, Broo went from being the comic relief to a character with a soul, one trying to escape his bestial heritage, find love and find a place. He eventually becomes the center of the students’ hopes and fears at the conclusion of the heartbreaking Wolverine and the X-Men #18 in an issue that may be showing up on another list…

And the Beardie goes to…

tumblr_mc1qf1PXeI1qzcsd1o1_1280Hawkeye – Clint Barton

Did anyone expect Matt Fraction’s take on Marvel’s best archer to be this great? In 6 issues, Clint has become a hero to the everyman, a guy making a stand, a father figure and a neighbor. He’s the hero we want to and think we could be. Fraction and David Aja’s nail the archer in and out of the costume and he’s made more than a few new fans in 2012.

Next Up – We’ve seen owls, the return of the Joker, burning space birds, atomic bombs, Daemonites, books of magic, poorly named evil organizations and much more but what’s strong enough to take this year’s award for Best Arc?

“Down to the last stone, down to my last breath”: Damian’s future is written in Morrison’s amazing BATMAN INC 5

Batman Inc-Zone-021It’s interesting watching the Batman line lose it’s way. In a veritable mess of non-stop crossovers, DC has made sure that readers are bound to lose track of the characters under the cowls. Why care about the risks if every thing’s just a series of mounting tensions with inevitable climaxes that come far too late?

That’s only one of the many, many reasons why Grant Morrsion’s Batman Incorporated has been the premier Bat-title DC has been releasing, if not the best title DC has produced in 3 years.

Part of that’s because of the relentless focus on tension. Morrison began with the end in mind. The finale of Batman Incorporated will be the end of Morrison’s collaboration with DC, exception of course for the upcoming Multiversity. As such, he’s decided to play with any of the toys he wants to, not caring what anyone else is waiting to use them for. Barbara Gordon’s in a wheel-chair! Jason Todd’s (maybe) wearing a more heroic costume! The Joker will end Gotham!

batman-inc-221Batman Inc. 5 reveals one answer that Morrison’s been holding out on for years, the future Bruce saw was of what happens when Damian takes over the Cowl. It’s a sinister world, with zombified-Joker ghouls burning Gotham to ashes, a cannibal Gorilla Grodd-esque super villain preaching the end of days, and Babs Gordon shooting Damian in the spine.

It’s an exhilarating issue. From Bruce, Dick and Jason surrounding a breaking down Damain, the new Batman’s dedication to the cause, the nuke or Leviathan’s second wave, it’s an action packed issue in a series that’s become one of the best for it.

Batman-and-Robin-0-Damian-first-Robin-CostumeDamian will remain Morrison’s finest contribution to the Bat-mythos for years to come and this is clearly him building to a new status queue for the character. The question that has loomed over the series since issue 3 has been whether Damian was ever suited to being Robin. He’s violent, self-centered and wants little more than to prove himself.

Damian’s a character that has consciously been designed to recall Jason Todd. Morrison (like me, although that sounds often pretentious of me) has long recognized that Jason has gotten a bad rap as Robin. He was a strong, interesting character, one that clearly wanted to do what was best for Gotham and for the Family. Jason’s death was one of the legitimately tragic moments of the Batman mythology, read separately from the phone line incident, and the character’s parallels to Damian are clear. Both are less focused on saving the city than proving themselves to the Knight in black armor.

tumblr_mcjdvoOplu1qhxx6do2_1280With seven issues left, and some preview images avaliable of issues to come, it’s pretty clear Batman Incorporated will be defined by Damian’s decisions. Can he control his own impulses and prove himself to Bruce? Will Talia push her beloved too far? Will Gotham be proven to be the Hell it was promised to be? Will Barbara end up back in a wheel chair? That one is probably less important.

“Seven words spoken in the dark” – Becky Cloonan gives a strikingly different take on the dark knight

Marvel has had a long tradition of analyzing their classic characters from the perspective of civilians. It generally provides interesting insights into the characters as well as the universe as a whole. Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ exceptional Marvels series defines the trend, examining the Golden, Silver and Bronze ages of comics through the perspective of a Daily Bugle reporter.

Scott Snyder has demonstrated a love for all periods of Batman lore and Batman 12 shows his willingness to examine the dark knight from a very different angle. After 11 issues of battling owls, assassins,  Gotham itself and a man claiming to be his brother, Batman gets a break in an issue that takes readers back to the first issue of Snyder’s series.

More than anything, Batman 12 is going to be remembered for Becky Cloonan’s stellar artwork on the issue. Being the first woman to ever illustrate Batman is certainly a long anticipated event and she does an incredible job. Her trademark clean lines, expressive faces and attention to body language and character interactions are all on display and it may be one of the most visually unique books of the Batman books.

Snyder’s script doesn’t disappoint either. Bringing back high school electrician Harper Row, who saved Batman from the Maze of the Owls back in issue 7, we get to understand the world of a girl who sees Batman as a sign of hope in a dying city. After being invited to the gala event that started off the first issue, Harper leaves disillusioned, thinking that Bruce Wayne doesn’t understand how to save the Gotham that she knows. The rest of her nights are spent fighting gay bashers who attack her brother and researching her hero, the Batman.

I don’t know that this is an issue we would have gotten had the Court of the Owls arc been stretched for another issue but its certainly an interesting take on how Batman is viewed and its a reintroduction to a character that Snyder seems to have plans for. Overall, picking this one up is about picking up a piece of history and its one of the most visually compelling super hero books you’re going to buy this year.

Batman vs. Radioactive Man – Tony Daniel closes his shameful run on Detective Comics

Perhaps the strangest part of the New 52 is seeing the sharp contrast between the best books of the relaunch and the worst. In a sea of titles that have helped to redefine what superhero comics can do, the titles that continue to stay stagnant.

Tony Daniel’s run on Detective Comics may be DC’s biggest failure of the relaunch. Handing the reigns of their trademark title to a creator who was mostly well known as an artist in the grotesque Image style seemed like a colossal misstep, even after Daniel had worked with Grant Morrison on Batman R.I.P. and Battle for the Cowl, seemed like a strange choice. Making matters worse, Daniel didn’t even attempt to make a book that was anything more than adequate at best.

Its hard to even describe the style that has characterized Daniel’s work on the title. Its episodic, fragmented, violent nonsense, seemingly drawing more from Image heroes such as Spawn and Midnighter and the atrocious All-Star Batman then the great stories both Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison have been turning in. There’s nothing wrong with telling a very different kind of Batman story; its just that over the course of 12 issues, Daniel hasn’t been able to tell a good one.

Its clear that Daniel has been trying to do just that. His first arc mixed an obscenely violent story about the Joker having his face cut off with the Penguin setting up a new nightclub in a way that did justice to none of Gotham. The plots were ludicrous, unsatisfying and messy. I had to go back and reread all of his issues just to tell you as much as I have, and I’ve already forgotten most of what he’s written.

Daniel’s last Bat-book will be the Detective Comics Annual coming out later this month but Wednesday’s Detective Comics 12 is his last real book on the title. There, he concludes his messy science story, bringing back Mr. Toxic and reintroducing Professor Radium, while having both of them being clones for some totally nonsensical reason. Its a mess of an issue, where we’re supposed to have grown to care about a tragic villain we’ve never really met, keep up with a bunch of science jargon that just barely makes sense and a brutally disappointing ending leads to an issue that could kindly be described as a waste of paper.

The backup story isn’t bad, written by future Talon scribe James Tynion IV, but it is unnecessary. I know a lot of people have been wondering about what had happened to the Joker’s face and undoubtedly DC wanted to tease out the upcoming Death in the Family arc but it feels like we should be seeing this in, y’know, Snyder’s Batman book.

I have always hated telling people that there’s no reason to read a certain title. People are going to like what they’re going to like and there are people who’ve surely found something worthwhile in Daniel’s run but for me, this has been an awful run and a blemish on DC’s solid relaunch. I can only hope that the next writer can do something with the dark knight but for now, lets all just try to forget that Daniel’s run has never happened.