Comics Crazy! – Vol. 2: Balloons And Splash Pages

Here’s another round of comic book reviews. Volume 1 is here.

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Written by Jim Krueger & Alex Ross, Art by Douglas Braithwaite & Alex Ross

Justice — When Earth’s greatest heroes join forces as the Justice League, it stands to reason that there isn’t much time or space for character development in a sprawling battle against their most dangerous foes. So when a good story comes along to defy such common reasoning it makes for a nice surprise. Justice is just such a story. While character development may have to go by the wayside, there are plenty of excellent character moments amidst the high-flying action. Different characters narrate each chapter of the story, helping to give insight into who they are. The other strongly positive element of the comic is the gorgeous and legendary painted artwork by Alex Ross, who normally is only able to do covers; when he gets to work on the interior panels it’s a real treat. The strong theme of working towards a perfect world ties everything together, with the final monologue providing words of optimism and hope, and all the more impactful because it is delivered by the hero who is usually seen as “the mean one” of the group: Batman.

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Written by Jeph Loeb, Art by Tim Sale

Batman: The Long Halloween — A classic among fans, this noir epic features a mysterious killer named Holiday who’s taking down Gotham’s criminals on significant statutory holidays. But the real backbone of the story is Harvey Dent’s transformation from a dedicated district attorney to the twisted and tragic villain Two-Face. Not to give too much away, but the climax shows him literally taking his place among the ranks of Batman’s Rogues Gallery. The one criticism I have is with the mobsters. Virtually everything about them is an homage to The Godfather, from their dialogue to their mannerisms. Granted, it’s hard to be original when it comes to the fictional mafia, but it also feels like Jeph Loeb wasn’t trying all that hard. Besides that, everything that is good and strong about this comic makes it easy to see why Christopher Nolan took it as a key piece of inspiration for his Dark Knight Trilogy.

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Written and Drawn by Milton Caniff

Terry And The Pirates — When we think of newspaper comic strips, most of us probably think of four-panel gags designed to stand alone each day. Some do still tell continuing stories, but again humour takes centre stage. But once upon a time, newspaper strips offered a greater variety of styles and genres. One of the most successful strips of the 30s and 40s, Terry And The Pirates falls firmly into the action/adventure realm. Arriving in China to search for buried treasure, young Terry Lee and his journalist friend Pat Ryan soon find themselves caught up in one madcap yarn after another. Allies, villains, and morally grey opportunists join them at every turn. Ironically, though the initial storyline does indeed involve pirates, that particular class of citizen largely disappears and the title doesn’t seem to make much sense after that. But it doesn’t much matter because the stylish art and writing of Milton Caniff carries the reader away — quite literally, since each story segues almost seamlessly into the next a lot like more and more TV shows are doing nowadays. Along the way it collects a huge cast of characters, each one fairly uniquely shaped, though it’s true that Caniff, at least at first, took the easy route of simply inserting certain stereotypes for his Chinese characters; Connie, Terry and Pat’s first friend in the Orient, is likely to be seen as the worst offender since he “speaks Amelican velly well”. But as time goes on, these stereotypes disappear for the most part. About the only ones still used by the end of Caniff’s run are for the Japanese — and that of course can be explained by the war. Caniff did leave a certain legacy of nomenclature when it comes to stereotypes, but ironically it is with perhaps one of his most interesting and engaging villains. The Dragon Lady (she was the originator of the name) begins her career as a pirate queen, then becomes a patriotic guerrilla leader fighting for her country. But outright antagonist or not her presence usually signals danger to our heroes. Speaking of heroes, one sometimes frustrating aspect of Terry And The Pirates is the way Caniff juggles different combinations of heroes. Don’t expect to stay with Terry, Pat, and Connie forever; in fact, once they become first separated, they never really become quite the same tight-knit trio again. For large stretches not only are there no pirates in this strip…there’s no Terry. I’ve talked a lot about this particular comic, largely because it’s not as widely known as those with more iconic superheroes (like the rest of this post) and I think that should change. Terry And The Pirates is great fun. I’m a little bit sorry that after six (gorgeously reprinted) volumes it has to come to an end. But I’ll always have it on the shelf to return to when I need it.

*

Written and Drawn by Lee Bermejo

Batman: Noel — This is a holiday-themed superhero story like no other I’ve seen. It’s actually quite a beautiful and subtle comic, which at first seems rather simplistic and obvious, but when I reached the last page I realized what was happening with the structure. Suddenly I saw the beauty for myself, that the text was in fact telling you one story while the pictures were telling you another. The narrator seems to be telling us about Batman’s Christmas Eve in Gotham City, but he’s really just telling a modernized version of A Christmas Carol. The fact that the stories run parallel is almost coincidental. But the twist I wasn’t expecting, and which I’m not going to spoil, is just who the Scrooge analogue is. It isn’t who you think it’s going to be at first. Some may not like it, some may not think of the structure as a twist, but I thought it was lovely.

*

Written by Mark Waid, Art by Alex Ross

Kingdom Come — I first read this book several years ago, when I knew who Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman were, but not too much about the rest of the DC universe. It’s much easier for me now to appreciate the characters who crowd the canvas. Set in a speculative future of the DC world, the classic heroes have gotten older and retreated from the public view. Society has turned its attention to a new breed of heroes, ones who don’t hold to such high-minded moral scruples, like the one about not killing enemies for example. The world is slowly becoming unhinged, even more so after a horrible decision by one of these so-called heroes leads to turning Kansas into a wasteland. All of this is witnessed by one of the more otherworldly superheroes, The Spectre, who is the embodiment of the Wrath of God. A great evil is about to be done and he must execute judgement on the guilty. But he requires a human assistant to help him judge, and he chooses a disillusioned pastor named Norman McCay. Together the two of them bear witness to the unfolding battle of the “gods” — and McCay finds answers to his questions of faith. At its core, the theme here is erasing the distinction between human and superhuman; people of all kinds, whether or not they have powers beyond mortal men, are both fundamentally good and fundamentally flawed. Who are the villains and who are the heroes? Ultimately the answer doesn’t lie in righteousness or lawbreaking, but in how much we are willing to make restitution after our mistakes. This book predates Justice (see above) by ten years, but it too is gorgeously illustrated by Alex Ross.

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(All cover art is here for the purpose of illustrating a review. Copyrights belong to their respective publishers.)

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