Work Formerly In Progress: Rebutting Sims & Uzumeri on Justice League

March 20th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

Originally, I wanted to write a rebuttal to a couple of reviews of Geoff Johns & Jim Lee’s Justice League that David Uzumeri and Chris Sims wrote. I disagree Justice League is in any way emblematic of everything wrong with comics, or even most things wrong with comics. Somehow, I also disagree with Uzumeri’s point that it shines with strong characters. I think there are good character moments in it (each character gets a chance to shine, which I greatly enjoyed), but the characterization is light. I made a joke about going at Sims and Uzumeri on Twitter, Laura Hudson called my bluff, and I started work on the post in earnest for ComicsAlliance.

To make a long story short, I burned out on modern cape comics in a major way partway through this essay. More specifically, I burned out before I got a chance to talk about Justice League at all. I’d had this grand (not really) structure planned–I’d point out why Jim Lee and Geoff Johns were the only people at DC who could do the Justice League relaunch justice, then I’d talk about how the series is structured like a posse cut (this didn’t appear out of thin air, it was going to be integral before I realized I wanted to write about posse cuts more than comical books), and then break down exactly why it didn’t need to be a heartbreaking work of incredible characterization to succeed as a Justice League comic. (“Don’t let me do it to ya, dunny, ’cause I’ll overdo it” is basically how I approach writing, I guess.)

But to make a short story longer, I lost the thirst for it partway through. I liked Justice League 1-6. If I had to give it a letter grade, I’d say “I spent four bucks on each issue and didn’t feel bad about it” and then condescendingly explain to you why I hate grades. (They try to quantify the unquantifiable.)

So to make a long story even longer than it should have been, below the bar is my nearly unedited draft. It’s a little over a thousand words about Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, and who they are and how they came to be. It’s a little cleaner than how I usually work — I usually throw in a lot of placeholder sentences and stuff to get back to later, as well as admonishments and “What is the point of this paragraph, stupid?” — but all that stuff at the top is notes for stuff I’d intended to get to or wanted to structure the essay around. Hopefully you like reading it.

(Keeping with my uncontrollable habit of biting rap songs for titles, “Allow me to reintroduce myself” has its direct origins in Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” and “Back For The First Time” is a ref to Ludacris’s first [major label] album.)

allow me to reintroduce myself: justice league 1-6
back for the first time

geoff johns is the superhero guy. bendis is his only competition.
jim lee is the superhero guy. hitch took a stab, but lee is that guy who has shifted cape comics twice–with x-men #1 and batman: hush

it’s about big moments, it’s a blockbuster
it’s The Expendables, it’s Fast Five

The Posse Cut
Point: This isn’t an introduction. It’s a reintroduction.
Point: This is a blockbuster.
Point: Every character gets a moment to shine.
Point: This sets the foundation for relationships in broad strokes, leaving plenty of room for growth.
Point: It ain’t perfect. (lee’s art, johns’s dialogue)
Point: This Is Fast Five

Jim Lee and Geoff Johns are an interesting choice to relaunch Justice League for a wide variety of reasons. The number reason is probably that Lee and Johns are among DC’s biggest moneymakers, and combining the two is pretty similar to printing money. It makes sense financially, but I think it also makes sense from a creative point of view, too.

Jim Lee, love him or hate him, has had a tremendous effect on modern comics. He’s had indirect effects, like publishing Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics or selling Wildstorm to DC and enabling the creative renaissance of that line, but in terms of direct effects… he’s hard to beat. His X-Men #1, written by Chris Claremont, sold over 8.1 million copies. It was the height of the X-Men boom, I think, and the X-Office spent some time chasing that dragon. Later, he co-founded Image and co-created the late, lamented Wildstorm Universe. Ten years after that, he teamed up with Jeph Loeb to create Batman: Hush, a twelve-issue story that was a shot in the arm for the character and returned Lee to the top of the sales charts.

Lee’s spent a lot of time doing work in other media over the past few years, but he’s an undeniable superstar, and possibly the artist in cape comics. His style helped redefine the X-Men, and through the X-Men, superheroes in general. Lee and Rob Liefeld get dinged a lot for pouches, but the people who trot out that tired old joke don’t realize that their styles were a shift forward. It was a move toward real-world utility, a way to increase the realism of comics without sacrificing the technicolor fever dreams that make cape comics so much fun.

Lee’s style incorporates the advances that John Byrne, Frank Miller, Art Adams, and Neal Adams brought to cape comics and pushes them a little further. The X-Men wore gear that was more like uniforms than costumes. Physiques became more chiseled under his pen. He sought out that sublime space between realism and fantasy and sold eight million comics off the back of his style. That’s impressive, and I think it’s turned Lee into one of those quintessential superhero artists. Kirby defined capes for our fathers and grandfathers. Jim Lee redefined them for us.

Geoff Johns has had a different (and shorter) route to the top, but he’s still a very significant player in the cape comics field. He’s the guy who spins straw into gold. With a diverse array of artists, Johns has revitalized, or been largely responsible for the revitalization of, Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, the Justice Society of America, Barry Allen, Aquaman, the Teen Titans, and several other characters besides.

Johns is the king of cape comics right now. His only real competitors in impact and quality are Grant Morrison, whose work has been limited largely to Batman for the past few years and the ongoing reboot of Action Comics for the past few years, and Brian Michael Bendis, who is currently in the process of wrapping up his almost eight-year stewardship of Marvel’s Avengers titles. Morrison is telling a sprawling, messy story about Batman that has lasted almost six years, and Bendis has never been able to match Johns for sheer bombast and scope.

Johns has found a formula for cape comics that works, and probably owes more than a little to Stan Lee’s approach in the ’60s. Rather than being a victim of Silver Age blinders that a lot of people think he is, Johns is actually firmly enmeshed in the Bronze Age. The level of violence in his comics tends toward the gory, which is definitely a hallmark of the modern era of DC Comics, but he has consistently managed to find an angle to approach a character from that resonates with readers. There’s no greater proof of that than the fact that Aquaman, his reboot of the Paul Norris character with artist Ivan Reis, is a top ten seller in the Direct Market.

“Aquaman sucks” is a long-running joke, and Johns turned it into the engine that makes that series go. These type of nerd in-jokes are generally grating — see also any “Glasses are a stupid disguise!” joke in comics — but for some reason, the series works. And I’m not even close to the target audience for that series, but I bought it, month-in, month-out. It’s not a particularly deep work, but it works on a basic superheroic level. You get Aquaman, he behaves like a hero should, but it doesn’t come off hokey or fawningly Silver Age. It’s a modern Aquaman, and I don’t mean modern in the sense of gritty. I mean modern as in suited for today’s day and age, post-Die Hard, post-Matrix, and post-The Fast and the Furious. It’s appropriate for 2012.

Modernizing characters is a tough row to hoe, but Johns has pulled it off time and time again. I got heavy into his first run on Flash when I was getting back into comics, and the Johns/Kolins run remains one of my favorite runs in comics. Sinestro Corps War was a great tale, and I’ve never been a Green Lantern fan, really. There’s something about his approach, the way he marries personal stakes (a thing that reminds me of Marvel-style heroes, actually) with superheroic stakes (Sinestro is gonna do _______) and gleeful violence (almost always on the part of his villains, his heroes remain almost squeaky clean, even after being given permission to use deadly force) that really strikes a chord.

long story short DC chose the best two people to work on the relaunch and the result was a book I enjoyed a lot, despite being sometimes clunky (“you’re the world’s greatest superheroes!”) and the army of inkers they brought in toward the end

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DC’s New 52: Are You Ready For The World That’s Here?

August 30th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

This is the week that DC throws everything at the same wall simultaneously and prays that at least 75% of it sticks. This means there are 52 new(ish) books hitting store shelves in September. You can check the list here. I went through and pulled out what I’m willing to pay cash money for and which I’m open to the idea of maybe someday reading.

Figure this might as well be an open thread for the New 52 in the comments too, huh? Discuss amongst yourselves. Do people still say that? Talk about your hopes and gripes or whatever for this New 52, unless they have to do with Wonder Woman’s pants (or lack thereof), in which case, please don’t.


Art by CAFU
Cover by CAFU and BIT
On sale SEPTEMBER 14 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
The DCU’s most wanted man stars in his own series!
Cole Cash is a charming grifter few can resist. And yet he’s about to be branded a serial killer when he begins hunting and exterminating inhuman creatures hidden in human form – creatures only he can see!

Can the biggest sweet talker of all time talk his way out of this one when even his brother thinks he’s gone over the edge?

I like Grifter, and Nathan Edmonson’s the writer behind Who Is Jake Ellis? with Tonci Zonjic. That book gives him a lot of leeway (Zonjic is a problem and the script is pretty good, too). CAFU I’m not as keen on. His art can be a bit pedestrian and stiff, which isn’t really what I’m looking for in… well in anything ever, really. See that Thunder Agents book? Hopefully this isn’t that.

Written by GEOFF JOHNS
Art and cover by JIM LEE and SCOTT WILLIAMS
1:25 Variant cover by DAVID FINCH
RETROSOLICITED • On sale AUGUST 31 • 40 pg, FC, $3.99 US RATED T • Combo pack edition: $4.99 US
Comics superstars Geoff Johns and Jim Lee make history! In a universe where super heroes are strange and new, Batman has discovered a dark evil that requires him to unite the World Greatest Heroes!

This spectacular debut issue is also offered as a special combo pack edition, polybagged with a redemption code for a digital download of the issue.

It’s Jim Lee, stupid. Lee’s great, still one of my favorite guys. Seeing him on some new familiar faces will be interesting. And Johns’s only competitor for big action writing is Mark Millar, and Johns has twice the heart that guy does. I think this’ll be a pretty good read.

Art and cover by SCOTT McDANIEL and
On sale SEPTEMBER 7 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
The brilliant, slightly awkward high school student Virgil Hawkins transforms into the cocky electromagnetic hero Static!

A mysterious tragedy forces the Hawkins family to relocate from Dakota to New York City! Virgil embarks upon new adventures in a new high school and a new internship at S.T.A.R. Labs!

As Static, he dons a new uniform and establishes a new secret headquarters! But is he ready to take on the new villains who lurk in New York City’s underworld?

John Rozum and Frazer Irving’s Xombi? Yeah, best DC comic of the past year. Maybe the past two or three years, frankly. It beats the pants off the Rucka/JHW3 Batwoman, Morrison’s Batman… pick your favorite comic and I’ll call it crap to drum up interest for this book I really want to do well. I trust Rozum, but I go back and forth on McDaniel. The past few years have seen me sour on him, but his art for this book looks to be in something of a new style, or at least a twist on his old style. I’m open to seeing where this one goes, and believe in it enough to put a few bucks on it.

Art and cover by CLIFF CHIANG
On sale SEPTEMBER 21 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
The Gods walk among us. To them, our lives are playthings. Only one woman would dare to protect humanity from the wrath of such strange and powerful forces. But is she one of us – or one of them?

Wonder Woman is boring, but Azzarello is the truth, and Cliff Chiang is, too. Probably gonna be the best book of the relaunch.

But yo, those booty shorts they’re making her wear? She looks stupid without pants, and being in her underoos don’t make her more of a Wonder Woman than any other take on the character. Fans are terrible, and that was a stupid thing to bend on. Ugh.


Art and cover by MORITAT
On sale SEPTEMBER 28 • 40 pg, FC, $3.99 US • RATED T+
Even when Gotham City was just a one-horse town, crime was rampant – and things only get worse when bounty hunter Jonah Hex comes to town. Can Amadeus Arkham, a pioneer in criminal psychology, enlist Hex’s special brand of justice to help the Gotham Police Department track down a vicious serial killer? Find out in this new series from HEX writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, with lush artwork by Moritat (THE SPIRIT)!

All of these guys go a long way with me. Moritat just recently knocked The Spirit out of the park. Gray and Palmiotti did real well on Jonah Hex for a bunch of years. This sounds like more than that, swapping Jordi Bernet with Moritat. Good deal.

Problem: the price tag. Four bucks? Ehhh. Prices of DC books drop after a month, so I may pick this one up then.

Written by GEOFF JOHNS
Art and cover by IVAN REIS and JOE PRADO
On sale SEPTEMBER 28 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
The superstar creators from BLACKEST NIGHT and BRIGHTEST DAY reunite to take AQUAMAN to amazing new depths!

Aquaman has renounced the throne of Atlantis – but the sea will not release Arthur Curry so easily. Now, from a forgotten corner of the ocean emerges… The Trench! A broken race of creatures that should not exist, an unspeakable need driving them, The Trench will be the most talked-about new characters in the DC Universe!

I want to like Aquaman.


Cover by RYAN SOOK
On sale SEPTEMBER 28 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
The witch known as The Enchantress has gone mad, unleashing forces that not even the combined powers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg can stop. And if those heroes can’t handle the job, who will stand against this mystical madness?

Shade the Changing Man, Madame Xanadu, Deadman, Zatanna and John Constantine may be our only hope – but how can we put our trust in beings whose very presence makes ordinary people break out in a cold sweat?

Is this going to be the Mixtape Milligan, or are we gonna have to sit through another Carter IV? I’m a little iffy on Mikel Janin’s art, too. It looks too CG. It’s not terrible really, but it definitely looks like 3D models posed and placed on a background. Drives me crazy.

The thought of the Mixtape Milligan writing John Constantine in the DC Universe is pretty funny, though.

Written by GEOFF JOHNS
Variant cover by GREG CAPULLO
On sale SEPTEMBER 14 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
Retailers: This issue will ship with two covers. Please see the order form for more information.

The red-hot GREEN LANTERN team of writer Geoff Johns and artist Doug Mahnke introduce an unexpected new Lantern.

Sinestro might be just the shot in the arm this series needs. Mahnke drawing aliens and mayhem is always fun, too.

Variant cover by ETHAN VAN SCIVER
On sale SEPTEMBER 21 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
Be here for the start of a new era for The Dark Knight from writer Scott Snyder (AMERICAN VAMPIRE, BATMAN: GATES OF GOTHAM) and artist Greg Capullo (Spawn)! A series of brutal killings hints at an ancient conspiracy, and Batman learns that Gotham City is deadlier than he knew.

Snyder’s run on Detective Comics was incredibly unsatisfying (imagine biting into a really nice piece of cake and slowly appreciating every bite, only then Dan Didio rushes into the room and tells you that you gotta wrap it up so we can relaunch the cake, so you rewrite your icing so that the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-serial-killer-creep mystery turns into “oh he just chopped off all of someone’s limbs and is giving crappy speeches out of B movies about the nature of evil” showcase, aren’t you glad that two good artists were wasted on this comic book?), but had a solid start. Capullo’s cartoony style looks pretty cool, too. Hopefully this is a good Batman story?

Art and cover by JESUS SAIZ
On sale SEPTEMBER 21 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
One is wanted for a murder she didn’t commit. The other is on the run because she knows too much. They are Dinah Laurel Lance and Ev Crawford – a.k.a. Black Canary and Starling – and together, as Gotham City’s covert ops team, they’re taking down the villains other heroes can’t touch. But now they’ve attracted the attention of a grizzled newspaper reporter who wants to expose them, as well as a creepy, chameleon-like strike team that’s out to kill them.

Don’t miss the start of this hard-hitting new series from mystery novelist/comics writer Duane Swierczynski (Expiration Date, Cable).

I dunno, I like Swierczynski’s novels and his comics are sometimes pretty okay. He definitely did well on Iron Fist. Maybe this’ll be good? Despite my prejudice against the very idea of pro-active covert ops superheroes, I mean.

Cover by J.G. JONES
On sale SEPTEMBER 14 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
The world’s third-smartest man – and one of its most eligible bachelors – uses his brains and fists against science gone mad in this new series from Eric Wallace (TITANS) and Roger Robinson!

Michael Holt is the head of a successful high-tech corporation and an institute that recruits and encourages the finest minds of the next generation to excel. As Mister Terrific he inhabits a world of amazement few others know exists, let alone can comprehend.

I talked myself into really wanting this, and then DC went and replaced the artist on the next few issues (which is crap, the series just started) and everyone I know who has read Eric Wallace comics reminded me that he’s writing one of DC’s dumbest books (perhaps #2–Outsiders is pretty atrocious) and that maybe Final Crisis: Ink wasn’t as good as I thought it was.

I hope this book is good.

O.M.A.C. #1
On sale SEPTEMBER 7 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T
The all-seeing Brother Eye satellite has unleashed a new beast upon the DC Universe in this smashing new series! Kevin Kho has become an unwilling participant in a war between Checkmate and Brother Eye as he is transformed into the One Machine Army Corp known only as O.M.A.C.!

Yeah, crap, I–so Didio is trash as a writer, right? We’re talking bad, not incomprehensible bad but “writes comics that aren’t worth reading” bad. Bad enough that I completely wrote off his pet series. But the thought of Keith Giffen drawing Kirby, which is sure to be great–yeah, you know what? Never mind. As much as I want to see Giffen’s Kirby, this is probably going to be awful. Sorry for making you read these sentences. Maybe they’ll publish it unlettered.


Art and cover by ED BENES and ROB HUNTER
On sale SEPTEMBER 14 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T+
Atrocitus and his Red Lantern Corps return in their own series, battling against injustice in the most bloody ways imaginable!

Ed Benes is comics poison. I like Milligan, but this comic will be unreadable. I just wanted to remind you not to buy Ed Benes comics, no matter how tempted you may be.

There are others I might be open to trying. Maybe Levitz’s Legion will convince me to finally like that series (probably not, even Waid and Kitson couldn’t make me stick around). Flash will be pretty, I’m sure. Oh yeah, I like Mahmud Asrar, the artist on Supergirl, and that writing team is pretty solid. Simon Bisley is going to be drawing a bit of Deathstroke, so I’ll probably roll through for those issues. Nobody beats the Biz, right?

Right. I don’t even really know what people mean whey they say something is metal, but I bet that’s it.

I just don’t feel a driving need to check out anything past the ones I already want to buy, and that’s… that’s not good, is it? The rest of my list is basically “Would buy it if I got bored and heard good things about it from friends and if the price were cheaper” and “Would buy it if I got bored and somehow ran out of the other comics I read,” then.

But before this, I was buying exactly one DC Comics (Xombi) and now I’m buying four. That’s in addition to Hellblazer and American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest. So four definite and eight possibles on top of that? Probably a pretty good run for someone like me.

Anybody else want to talk out their New 52 interests?

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Frank Miller Owns Batman: “i rushed it. i blew it.”

August 8th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Jim Lee and Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is the best Batman story to come out of DC in years. It’s only rival is probably David Lapham and Ramon Bachs’s Batman: City of Crime.

So far, we have most of a Batman. We have the thirst for vengeance that birthed him, the will that powers him, and the rich inheritance that provides his means. Right now, at this moment, we have the makings of an urban legend and a night terror. Cops and criminals both know and fear him, as well they should, and the citizenry knows that there’s a dark angel waiting in the shadows to protect them. The specifics of his mission, and by that I mean the brutal violence, probably aren’t clear to John Q Public, but the fact that he exists and is fighting back is enough. There is someone out there with a spine, and he is on our side.

The problem, though, are those specifics. They get the job done, but they’re far from pleasant. They give us a Batman who is a little too hard-edged, a little too happy about getting to do some damage, to be a comic book superhero. The Batman’s methods must be tempered just a little. Right now, he’s a shadow who lurks among shadows. The problem with that is that there’s no difference between one shadow or another. One shadow can hold pain or pleasure, and you won’t know which is which until it’s too late. While it’s clear that the Batman is a benevolent shadow, there’s nothing to suggest that he won’t become one of the other, darker shadows at some point in time.

Enter: Robin.

The appeal of Robin is three-fold. He provides a character for young boys to relate to, a fact that is increasingly irrelevant as time goes on. He brightens Batman’s methods, turning him into a four-color hero instead of a bastard child of The Shadow. Finally, he provides a fix for Bruce Wayne, whose development was not stunted as a result of his parents’ murder, but rocketed off in a different direction. We played with toys. He played detective.

It wasn’t the death of his parents that turned Bruce Wayne antisocial. It was the quest that followed. He wanted to become the greatest detective slash crimefighter ever, and that quest has very little room for proms, high school, and the standard socializing everyone else does. The death of his parents changed how he views the world. Everything is either a tool for his war or irrelevant. This doesn’t preclude Wayne maintaining relationships, but it’s clear that his deepest relationship is Alfred, who was swept up in his quest and has merely managed to hang on for dear life while enabling the child.

Bruce Wayne grew up, but he didn’t grow up like we did. You can see it in the romantic relationships he pursues as an adult (which generally have built-in trapdoors like “she’s a villain” or “i can never tell her my secret”) or his treatment of Jezebel Jet (where he claims to have turned love into a weapon). He has used a long string of starlets and debutantes as cover for his mission–beards, essentially–without a care for how they would feel about it. They, like everyone else, are tools. WayneCorp, or Enterprises, or whatever, is a tool, too, something that lets him fight his war. Everything is either a weapon, a threat, or not worthy of attention. (More on the subject here, pulling in the idea of a Real Man and examples from Richard Stark’s Parker novels and Lone Wolf & Cub)

Robin is what changes that. Early in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman refers to grief as “the enemy.” He goes on to say that “there’s no time for grief. There’s no room for grief. Grief turns into acceptance. Forgiveness. Grief forgives what can never be forgiven.” Batman doesn’t think that there’s any room for acceptance in his war. He’s driven by anger at the unfairness of life. If he’d taken time to accept what happened, then he wouldn’t have the edge that has made him so successful. He’s a child lashing out after being hurt. It’s just that his way of lashing out is stretched out over a long period of time than a thrown punch or pitched fit.

As a result, though, he pushes a twelve year-old kid too far, too soon. If you don’t address these emotions, they’ll rot and fester inside of you. Batman had years to work through his issues, and he did so thanks to Alfred and the dozens of masters he learned his craft from. He didn’t not-grieve–he just grieved in a different way than most people did. He accepted that his parents were gone when he began fighting his war to ensure that no one else’s parents would die that way.

Robin didn’t have that, and nearly killed Green Lantern as a result. The anger and poison was bubbling just below the surface, and when pressed, it spilled over. You have to release negative emotions somehow, and Batman’s mistake was assuming that what worked for him would work for someone else. More than that–Batman’s mistake was thinking that what worked for him actually worked for him.

He drives Robin to his parents’ grave and tells him, “Find them. Say goodbye.” Put differently: “Grieve.” Robin hits the gravestone, a symbol of his dead parents, and collapses. Batman’s hand drops on his shoulder and they both cry in the rain, next to Robin’s parents. “We mourn lives lost,” Batman’s monologue says, “including our own.” They’re damned, or maybe just lost, and there’s no going back from here.

This is the moment when Bruce Wayne turns from the Bat-man, a fearsome creature of the night, to Batman, a superhero with a cheerful kid sidekick. This forces Batman into the role of nurturer, as well as avenger. He can’t proceed along his path any more. It may not be self-destructive, but it is definitely damaging to a third part that’s as close as Robin. He has to change, he has to adjust, because otherwise he damned this child for nothing.

(this is one of my favorite batman scenes, i think.)

Batman is an homage to Thomas Wayne. Batman and Robin, or maybe just Batman’s treatment of Robin from here on out, is an homage to Martha Wayne. Batman has to become a father, instead of just a Dark Knight, and that means that his mother’s mercy is going to play a bigger and bigger part in his life. It shifts his quest from pure vengeance into something more. It’s a splash of love, a love that he’d been keeping at a distance to keep his sword sharp, in a war that sorely needed it. “The greatest of these is love,” right? Robin pulls Batman out of the shell he’d built around himself and into normal humanity.

Robin is the secret to building a better Batman.

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a jim lee joint

August 1st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

It wasn’t Chris Claremont that made me an X-Men fan. The Dark Phoenix Saga ended and John Byrne left the series well before I was born. Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor married in a comic cover dated for the month I was born. By the time I was old enough to read, Maddie was long gone. By the time I hit the series, Claremont was past his prime and on his way out. I didn’t read but maybe two parts of the Muir Island Saga, and that was just enough to learn the word “pyrrhic” and the phrase “Bang, you dead.”

No, it was never about Claremont. It was about Jim Lee, whether he was assisted by Scott Williams or Art Thibert. It was about this:


and this:

It’s Jubilee flexing with Colossus, Iceman and Opal cracking jokes, Gambit getting his card pulled, Cyclops with a smile, and Archangel with the razor wings.

X-Men #1 wasn’t my first comic. That was Amazing Spider-Man #316, which I got from my uncle. X-Men #1 was probably one of the first ones I bought with my own money, or money begged off my mom, though. I’ve managed to hang onto it all these years, too. It’s well worn, which makes sense considering the fact I probably know it by heart, but not tattered, which is basically a miracle. Spider-Man was my entry drug, but Jim Lee’s X-Men hooked me. Last week on the internet, I said this:

Lee’s issues of X-Men are great comics. They’re pure spectacle, a series of really quick bursts of action and characterization. Some of Wolverine’s best moments ever are here, Gambit gets in a “gotta be da shoes” moment or two, and Bishop hits Rogue in the face with a boysenberry pie. Maybe you had to be there, but as an eight or nine-year old kid, these comics were the absolute apotheosis of comics as an art form or entertainment medium. “Jim Lee’s X-Men: David Brothers Likes It More Than He Likes Watchmen.”

The last line was a throwaway at first, something half meant to rile up the usual suspects and half sincere. The more I thought about it, though, the more sincere it became. I really do prize those comics more than Watchmen. In Watchmen, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins showed the world that cape comics were more than just entertainment for kids and shut-ins. They took the form and elevated it, charting new ground and changing the face of cape comics forever.

Jim Lee’s X-Men showed me that comics could be incredible, and crawled all the way up into my lizard brain to do it. I’m not even sure if I have the vocab to explain how or why. When someone says the word “superhero,” I think of Jim Lee’s art. He defined superheroes for me, and probably redefined them for the genre, too.

I know now, as an adult, that the visual language of cape comics comes from Jack Kirby. I can spot the influences in Lee’s art, too, the Art Adams business and John Byrne jawlines and Neal Adams physiques. I can break him down into his component parts if I put my mind to it, but Lee’s art is bigger than the sum of his parts. His characters look like superheroes should look: toothy grins, babyface or stubbled chins, physiques like Greek gods, and they positively bleed sexiness–granted, a very specific type of sexiness, aimed at pubescent boys, but it’s so easy to see his appeal.

I devoured those comics as a kid. I had a nearly uninterrupted run of Lee’s X-Men–that was probably a first, too–and I read most of them until the staples came out. Everything about comic books clicked for me and I had to have more.

His style defined the X-Men for years, to the point where the next big seismic shift in their visual style was when Joe Madureira mixed Lee’s costuming with a big sack full of manga tropes. The X-Men in X-Men: Children of the Atom up through to Marvel vs Capcom 2 are Lee’s X-Men, whether in design or in spirit.

Lee, even to this day, is probably the purest example of pop comics art. He doesn’t go in for Frank Quitely-style storytelling, David Aja-style body language, or Alan Davis-style realism. That’s not his thing. Instead, he has a keen eye for the cool. He knows what works on the page, and he gets that sometimes spectacle is more important than substance. Sometimes, substance is secondary to entertainment.

Grifter’s mask, Rogue’s bomber jacket and extra-long hair, Colossus being like eight feet tall, and Zealot are all things that shouldn’t quite work. If you think too hard at them, they fall apart. But when you’re swept up in the comic and watching these characters move across the page, none of that matters. It’s a cool visual, and it’s the type of cool that sticks with you. There are some scenes from X-Men that I first read twenty years ago and still hold in higher esteem than a lot of recent stuff. This “gotta be da shoes” reference right here:

I love this. It was topical back then, and probably passed through a corny phase a few years after that, but now, twenty years removed from its source? It’s fantastic. It’s just a guy having fun showing characters having fun. It’s not gripping reading, but it is compelling. There’s so much character and excitement packed into this dumb old basketball game.

I definitely imprinted on this stuff as a kid. I’ve never even seen a boysenberry pie in real life, so every time I hear the phrase, I think of this scene. I get and enjoy dozens of artists, Kirby included, and have a pretty good handle on the evolution of how cape comics are drawn. Paolo Rivera or David Aja may draw cape comics that are technically better, and Frazer Irving or Travis Charest may draw ones that are prettier, but nobody ever gets me hype off superheroes like Lee does. It flips some switch in my head and I just gotta check it out.

I’ve seen Lee draw the WildC.A.T.s, Batman, Superman, and the X-Men. Flash, too, I think–maybe a cover or three during Geoff Johns’s first run on the series. I sorta wish he’d done something substantial on Spider-Man. Spidey’s still the perfect superhero, and probably the one major gap in Lee’s body of work.

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Frank Miller Owns Batman: “he’s a rube.”

July 25th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Trying to recover from San Diego still, so I haven’t gotten a chance to crank out the big finale. I did want to do this quick hit-type post, though, because as much as I love Frank Miller’s Batman, there’s a whole lot wrong with All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. It boils down to pretty much “Miller’s reach exceeded his grasp.” ASBAR, as it currently stands, is too much spread over too many comics. If it were a little tighter, maybe five or six issues, it would be fantastic. At ten issues… well, it’s a little long and maybe too much to love.

-Wonder Woman–I’m not a particularly huge Wonder Woman fan or anything, but she feels wrong in this book. Miller cranked up the man-hate for some reason, and it poisons the character. It’s surprising to me, because I feel like he did so well with her in Dark Knight Strikes Again:

She’s royalty, the next best thing to being a god, and knows it. It makes sense for her to be above the regular folk and a little more willing to get down and dirty when it comes to fighting. She’s a warrior princess, right? She’s not just a regular old superhero. I like that idea, but in ASBAR, it barely even comes across. She seems mean-spirited, rather than pragmatic.

Man, on reading this after finishing the post, do you know what it is? She has no regal poise in ASBAR like she does in DKSA. She’s super-human in DKSA, but still clearly loves people and her friends. She’s too raw in ASBAR. She’s abrasive, and not in an enthralling, Batman/Wolverine sorta way.

-The first arc is way too long. Issues 1 through 9 serve as the first arc of the book, charting the arrival of Dick Grayson, introduction of Robin, and the initial softening of Batman via grief. And as much as I love the grotesque nature of the series (Geoff Klock’s writing on that subject is essential) with all of its insane foldouts and incredible spectacle, it takes too long to get to the point. It isn’t a strong enough work to pull you along for nine issues, unless (like me) you grew up on both these creators. It’s all stick and very little carrot, all the way up until Batman and Robin cry in the graveyard.

Miller tries to fit in too much. The Justice League stuff is entirely too long for its place in the story. The JL are there to establish Batman as a threat and then decide to do something about it. Shoulda happened off panel, I think, with Green Lantern telling us that the JL is worried. Later, because you know it’s coming, the JL could show up as a surprise or something at the end of an issue. A real “oh snap” moment for the series, rather than the meandering introduction of the League that we got.

-The car chase is great, but again: too long. I love its grotesque nature, but hate how it screws with the pace of the book.

-If the first arc had been–I dunno–five or six issues with a lot of the fat trimmed off, it would’ve been much, much stronger. It wasn’t, though, and while I enjoy it, I enjoy it in a way that’s specifically about my trust for Miller and Lee’s work, rather than anything purely rational. Sabes?

-Miller’s Joker is brilliant. A Joker who doesn’t tell jokes early in his career revitalized the character for me at a point where about all I had for the idea was scorn. It made him evil and creepy in a way I could appreciate. Miller does good crazy/evil, too–“I love her only when she cries” is SO good, and when Joker switches from “her” to “it” is chilling. His Joker is good, and probably the best up until the point that Morrison introduced Joker as Oberon Sexton. I like it a lot.

He also shows up too early. We get five strong pages of him as an introduction, but if he’d been pushed to a second arc, it would’ve been stronger and not interfered with the story quite so much.

-Black Canary gets half of the third issue to herself. This is story bloat. We don’t need to know that much about her, but I guess Miller wanted to establish this version as being his own or whatever whatever. I wasn’t particularly fond of it, though I like his Canary, but this just feels like padding. She’s incidental, I assume, and while her hijinx are interesting and violent, that’s just not enough to justify the expense.

-Vicki Vale? I don’t care. I get it, but I don’t care. The Jimmy Olsen bit was cute, but I don’t care. I keep forgetting that she wasn’t just in the Michael Keaton movie, even. Who cares?

-Jim Lee is both the perfect choice and an odd choice of artist. He’s the definitive superhero artist in our post-Kirby world, doubly so now that he’s top dawg at DC, and as a result, this story is lent a level of seriousness (and… not grandeur. I’m tired and blanking, so let’s just roll with seriousness) that it doesn’t exactly require. That seriousness makes the story and art work against each other. You expect one story due to the art, but you’re getting a different one. I would’ve loved to see Miller draw this, because he can draw gleeful superheroics like most people can’t, but that would’ve marginalized the book as being off in Miller’s little world. It’s a tough row to hoe, and I don’t honestly know whether or not they should’ve gone with Miller instead of Lee. It definitely screwed with the perception of the book, and I’m saying that as a guy who likes both artists.

-A little editing would have really gone a long way. Again: he’s trying to do too much and the series suffers. Stronger editing was definitely needed. Drop some scenes, compress others and it would have been better, at least in terms of technique. I like the grotesque, sprawling, hot mess of a comic that it is as published, but man. I hate liking a book and having caveats, you know?

-With all that said, All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #9 is about as fun of a cape comic as you’ll ever see, and probably my favorite single issue of a DC Comic. Top five, at the very least. Maybe top three. The way it takes on the absurdity of superheroes, Batman’s respect for the cowl, Batman’s insults, “Care for a glass of lemonade?”, “we have to be criminals,” “What a rube,” Robin reading Yellow Kid, and that moment where everything flips upside down… it’s good.

It’s what the series should have been the whole time. It’s got the comedy, action, and melancholy sadness that I expect from cape comics. It makes Hal Jordan look stupid, but who cares about that guy. Miller is a funny guy. He could do (has done) some real mean and funny comics. Ever read Tales to Offend? I like that comic. Some of that same sense of humor bleeds through to ASBAR #9.

But yeah. We’re gonna get to that issue. Please believe it.

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Frank Miller Owns Batman: “my young charge enjoys herself far more than she should. so do i.”

July 19th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Batman is a painful idea, one that is fueled in large part by tragedy.

At the same time, Batman is a healing idea for Bruce Wayne. One thing Miller does that not enough Batman writers do is make it clear and plain that Bruce Wayne loves being Batman. There’s this line I latched onto the first time I read Dark Knight Strikes Again. Batman crashes a flying Batmobile into Lex Luthor’s tower, beats up his goons, slashes a Z across Luthor’s face, and then skates, Catgirl in tow. I mean, he demolishes everyone. It’s thrilling. When he’s done, he leans back in the Batmobile, kicks his feet up on the dash, and says, “Striking terror. Best part of the job.”

Something in my head just clicked when I read that, and I just knew that this is how Batman has to be. Batman has to enjoy what he does on a very personal and deep-seated level. Otherwise, it’s just a job, isn’t it? He clocks in, clocks out, and goes home. Enjoying the “being Batman” parts of being Batman is vital to his character, otherwise he’s mired in misery for no good reason. Even Daredevil loved dancing across the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen.

If Bruce Wayne enjoys being Batman, then being Batman is more than just a gig or revenge. It’s a calling. It’s something that he’s built to do, something that exercises that little part of your brain that makes you good at things. He’s into being Batman like an artist is into drawing or a writer into writing. He sits down at the crime-fighting equivalent of a drawing board and slips into the zone. If you have the opportunity to do things you like as part of your daily life, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Everything else drops away, and it’s just you and your painting, or essay, or video, or whatever. Things make sense.

Or, it’s something like Rakim said: “I start to think and then I sink/ Into the paper like I was ink/ When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the lines/ I escape when I finish the rhyme/ I got soul.”

That’s what being Batman is, and has to be, for Bruce Wayne. It’s got to be a calling, something that energizes him and gives him the strength to go on. In Dark Knight Returns, after jettisoning the Bat, his life is empty and he bounces from whim to whim. He rediscovers the Batman and the result is striking. “This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle–broken, spent, unable to move. And, were I an older man, I surely would… But I’m a man of thirty — of twenty again. The rain on my chest is a baptism–I’m born again.”

The reference to baptisms and being born again is on the nose, innit? This is Batman’s religion. This is how he gets closer to God. And the bold on “born” but not again is suggestive, too–this is how Batman begins. That thrill that dances up his spine, that impossible stamina, and that feeling of being a man made god. It’s undeniable. It’s seductive.

Dial it back twenty-some years to All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, and there’s this:

You get the feeling that Wayne just wants to get out there and DO something. His captions scream out how empowering and rehabilitative Batman is. “I should be exhausted. I haven’t slept in days. But I can’t get tired. No matter how hard I try. Not with this pulse pounding my ears and dear Gotham calling to me like a sultry siren.”

That sounds pretty incredible, doesn’t it? Positively life-affirming As if Batman were a medicine, or steroid, that’s keeping him going. It reads like it revitalized his life and gave him an irresistible reason for being. Everything in the city, from the cold and nasty wind off the river to the jerks laying on the horn at asleep o’clock is perfect. It builds up to Batman’s ultimate playground, the perfect location for a creature like him. He’s where he belongs. He’s in his zone. Batman be to crime-fighting what key be to lock.

I can’t help but love that in a major way. I don’t think Batman should be a happy go lucky type of guy, but he’d definitely have a devil may care grin and take a certain amount of pleasure in doing what he does. He might not show it, but it has to be there. He has to like it. Being Batman has to be fulfilling and something he can enjoy. The enjoyment may ebb and flow, but striking terror has to always, always be the best part of the job.

There’s this really good sequence in Charlie Huston and David Finch’s Moon Knight that sort of relates. It starts with Moon Knight staring down Taskmaster before taking him apart in a major way (“Yes, kill me. See if that works this time.” and Taskmaster crumbles in the wind), getting what he wants, and vanishing into the night. As he leaves, he’s thinking, “I get what I want. Glories. I get glories. Glories such as these.”

Moon Knight is geared more toward reveling in violence and sado-masochism than Batman is, and that’s how he honors the god that gives him his gimmick and/or powers. He puts the boot in, and Khonshu is pleased. Moon Knight’s glories aren’t Batman’s, but Batman, every single night, ends up with glories. Being Batman shows him a side of life that most people never see, where the city speaks to you with the familiarity of a lover, your life and death are always near at hand, and hand-in-hand, and everything is your playground.

Later in the series, Batman and Robin have to get somewhere in a hurry. Batman, indulges himself a bit and says, “We hitch a ride.” This is the ride:

Normal people don’t get to do that. This is what being Batman is all about. You see the city as an entity, you learn the secret paths and language, and most of all, you get to be exactly where you want to be.

“Every inch of me is alive.”

next: i rushed it. i blew it.

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Frank Miller Owns Batman: “i mean, i’ve seen better, but i guess this is okay.”

July 18th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

I like Captain Marvel because he’s a boy’s fantasy. Say a magic word and bam, you turn into an idealized version of yourself, people respect you and take you seriously, and you’re a true blue hero.

Batman is a child’s fantasy, too, but a more specific one. It is Bruce Wayne‘s fantasy, and his reaction to the death of his parents. The actual Bat part of the fantasy came later, of course, but the avenging angel saving the innocent from the predations of criminals was born as Bruce watched his parents die.

It’s kind of a childish, or maybe just simple, idea, isn’t it? Batman declared war on crime. Not a specific type of crime, or a certain criminal. He declared war on a nebulous object, something so big that it will never, ever go away. Why? Because it hurt him and took his parents away.

I like how the Mark of Zorro figures into Batman’s origin. It was his father’s favorite movie, and it was the very last thing he did with his family before he died. The Mark of Zorro is the last thing he saw as an innocent, and that’s significant. Don Diego was a man who believed in justice and protecting the downtrodden by night, and pretended to be an affable fop by day. He used a certain symbol as a calling card and to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. A Z scratched into flesh or cloth was a warning and an admonishment. It’s easy to see why this would be attractive to a six year old kid who just watched his parents die. It’s simple and attractive, with a very clear idea of right and wrong.

Bruce Wayne then dedicates his life and fortune to training himself in the arts of crime fighting and fighting. You can probably assume that he’s an expert fencer, too. He returns to Gotham as a twenty-five year old and attempts to begin his war on crime, but soon realizes that it won’t work without a symbol. The genre demands drama, and a bat comes out of the nighttime sky and pushes its way into his life and psyche. With the addition of that symbol, he’s ready to begin his war.

One of the best bits in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is the huge fold-out spread of the Batcave. It’s spectacle on overdrive, the sort of thing that only comic books can do, and it’s wonderful. It’s the first time I’ve really seen the Batcave as something incredible, rather than being Batman’s dark, nasty cave. It’s filled with stuff. He’s got a gang of cars in various styles. There are suits of armor that sit in homage to some of the best-respected armies in history–Greek hoplites (presumably Spartan?), Roman Centurions, Japanese samurai, and a Crusades-era Muslim soldier. There are helicopters and jets.

And then, big as life, there’s a giant robot tyrannosaurus rex in the process of being built. This isn’t an arsenal. It’s a toy chest. Every single thing in the Batcave can be mapped to a real-life toy, save for maybe the Bat-computer. The Batmobiles are essentially Hot Wheels in a variety of styles, and the suits of armor are soldier toys, something that would let you make cowboys fight aliens or knights fight tanks. All he’s missing is a giant robotic GI Joe. The cave’s a giant playset.

And Batman, who is twenty-five years old, turns to Dick Grayson, age twelve, and sees the look of pure and utter astonishment on his face and asks him if his cave is “cool or what?”

“Eh, it’s aight.”


Batman: child at heart. I hesitate to call it arrested development because it isn’t, really. It’s a sort of parallel development. He found his calling decades before any of us actually do. It just so happens that his calling springs from a very, very childlike space, and he’s got the money to do exactly what he wants. He can fulfill almost every childhood dream, but most especially the crime fighting one, and he does that by way of his wonderful toys.

Miller and Lee reveal similar origins for Robin. While exploring the cave, he finds Bruce’s cabinet full of weapons, picks up a bow and arrow, tests the tension on the string, closes his eyes, and thinks. The picture that comes to mind is Errol Flynn as Robin Hood on a moonlit night. Robin Hood, of course, is one of the precious few characters more swashbucklin’ than Zorro.

Sidebar: I really like Lee’s storytelling on this page. Panel two, with him looking at the bow leads nicely into panel three, with the “…” implying thought, and then the angle of Grayson’s head lines up with the angle of Robin Hood’s head, as if he’s becoming the character.

When Grayson explains why he’s going to be called Hood to Batman, he mentions that his father used to make him watch an old movie about Robin Hood, and that that’s why he took up archery. So, once again, you have the son attempting to honor the father through deeds and identity. Both characters latched onto something from their childhood, something that is an indelible link to their parents, and made it the focal point of their life.

At first, I thought this was just sort of a nice coincidence, right? “I do this in remembrance of you” sort of thing. But, no: the costumes and gimmicks are a reminder of their parents. Every time Batman goes out and slings a Batarang, or every time Bruce Wayne guzzles ginger ale like it’s champagne, he’s connecting himself to his folks by way of The Mark of Zorro. Every single time he suits up, that’s what he does. Robin, too. When he flips down from a skylight, leading with a joke and following that with a closed fist–that’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. That’s his father. That’s his family. The costumes and identities are like… tokens, or keepsakes. A reminder, a crystalized memory.

Batman and Robin are living memorials, a testament to their love for their family.

(Funny, but unrelated, trivia: Basil Rathbone was in both The Mark of Zorro and The Adventures of Robin Hood, playing opposite Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn, respectively. Batman and Robin/Zorro and Robin Hood have the same enemy, it seems.)

next: every inch of me is alive.

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Frank Miller Owns Batman: “it’s better that way.”

July 13th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Superheroes are better, or maybe just bigger, than we are. Their motivations are more pure, their actions are more sure, and their confidence is incredible. Everything is larger than life, even their momentary lapses of faith. They deal with situations that would make normal humans crack under the pressure once a month, and still wake up every morning to go to work.

They love better, too. There’s none of the insecurity and mindgames that orbit our relationships. Superheroes have impossibly beautiful and interesting love interests and have pure and incredible relationships. How can you love anybody the way Superman loves Lois Lane? Does anyone love you as much as Wally West loves Linda Park? Even their breakups are apocalyptic. We break up and spend weeks on the couch, depressed out of our heads. Superheroes fly off into space, change their whole identity, or break up in the middle of apocalypses.

The sex, too, is similarly bigger than sex is in real life.

Thirty-some years ago, Chris Claremont did a really, really good job of mainstreaming BDSM themes or tropes in cape comics. The Hellfire Club was a barely disguised sex club, where the queens wore corsets and capes and sipped wine out of goblets while casually ordering around the help and inflicting pain or receiving at their leisure. Claremont’s stunningly fond of mind control stories, sometimes including body modification (a loss of control for some, a taking of control for others) and sometimes simply being about someone being told what to do or being helpless.

It’s all more than we can manage in real life, and people bounce back from emotional trauma like it was nothing. Superheroes can do that. Superheroes do everything big. They don’t do halfway or normal. They go all the way in. Maximum drama. Maximum excitement.

“We keep our masks on. It’s better that way.”

Without the mask, Bruce Wayne is just a man. He’s rich enough to throw some wild sex parties, the type with dozens of guests, representation for every fetish, and all the cocaine you can fit up your nose, but he’s still just a man. With the mask, he’s Batman, the Dark Knight, avenger of the innocent, savior of the world, and secret weapon of the JLA. The same goes for Black Canary, to an extent. She went from bartender to superheroine, and all it took was a short temper and a costume. A semantic change, perhaps, but a change nonetheless.

Throw some furry handcuffs, role playing, or a blindfold into your normal human sexy times and look what happens. Now, imagine that magnified times a million, amped all the way up to superheroic proportions. The constant threat of violence, the hyper-emotional states you flash through over the course of an issue, and the sheer fact that you’re two people wearing more or less skintight, fetish-y crimefighting gear all add up to something more than we can ever get in real life. Everything is heightened for the story. The mask is the gateway to greatness. Normal relationships are out of the question. Superheroes are too big of an idea to bother with the mundane.

The masks represent their superheroic nature. Batman and Canary are in a comic book. That’s why they can have sex on the docks after fighting off a couple dozen gun-toting thugs, causing some medium-level property damage, and setting the docks on fire with weaponized bleach. That’s what superheroes do, not what humans do. Humans do it with the lights off and under the covers. Superheroes do it while lightning strikes and the earth moves.

What Miller did here was just put what we’ve already learned, or picked up on unconsciously, onto the page as plain as day. We already know that superheroes have mind-blowing love lives. We’ve seen Black Cat fall into a thrill-seeking relationship with Spider-Man, only to utterly reject him when he revealed that he was a normal guy. Clark Kent pined after Lois Lane for years, but she only had eyes for Superman. The Flash is so in love with Linda Park that he came back from being lost in time. Daredevil has tripped over supermodels, sexy assassins, and regular old hot women every single time he falls into a relationship. Spider-Man dated the girl next door and the unattainable party girl turned supermodel.

We’ve accepted the idea that it’s better with the masks on already. This just took the subtext and made it text.

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Frank Miller Owns Batman: “thank you. i love you.”

July 12th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Batman is an idea. Well, several ideas which all sort of intertwine, like a double (quadruple?) helix. He is the idea that there is someone out there who will make the world make sense for us. He is a protector and avenger, someone who lurks the dark alleys and does the hard thing in order to keep us safe. He’s the idea that one person can make a difference. He’s the idea that you can, and should, choose right over wrong and justice over fear. He’s all of these ideas, which, when you boil it down, he probably comes down to being all about safety, both the creation or comfort thereof. The existence of a Batman means that you live in a world where you can, and maybe will, be safe.

Batman is an idea that is both inspirational and aspirational, depending on who you talk to. He either gives you the strength to go on, or mobilizes you to emulate him.

Take a look at the average Jane on the street, one of a species known for walking down dark alleys for no good reason. Three thugs with entirely unlikely knives set upon her in a dark alley… and Batman drops out of the night to save her. He’s in full The Shadow mode, here. The laugh sends chills down the spine of the punks. They know exactly who he is. They’re familiar with the idea of Batman. He brutalizes them. They stand no chance, and he makes it a point to make them pay.

It’s violent, and it’s ugly, but more than anything, it is order imposing itself on chaos. Batman is there to set things right, and right in this situation means that the people who would hurt innocents get what’s coming to them. It’s more than a beating. He makes it a point to give them wounds that will affect their lives for years. It’s psychological warfare. It’s a deterrent. It’s terrorism.

“Striking terror. Best part of the job.”

The woman, our young Gotham professional with extraordinarily bad luck, watches the beating with fear, and then awe, and then admiration. She went from a situation in which she had no control at all to one in which the people who wanted to hurt her where put entirely out of commission. It gives her faith and confidence, but more than that, it gives her an opportunity to regain control, now that she has a guardian angel. She walks past a knife that was just at her throat and delivers a kick to the crotch of a would-be assailant. “I’ve got Batman watching after me,” she says.

The existence of Batman, the idea of him, gives her strength. She witnesses the brutal, ugly violence that is his trademark, and sees the idea behind it. “Evil will not win.” She thanks him. She says she loves him. And she does, in the same way that we love anything that gives us strength, from music to movies to family. He’s inspirational. He’s the father that’s always there for you and can rejuvenate your confidence with a smile and nod.

Next: Batgirl.

Children take to ideas like fish to water. They’re naturally inquisitive, since everything is new, and they’re pliable. If you can convince a kid of something, they’ll argue it with someone else until the cows come home, whether or not. They’re susceptible to new ideas, and more than that, willing to really believe in them.

Batgirl gets Batman. Really gets him. She understands what he brings to the table, and she’s more than willing to take it all the way. Batgirl was Batman, Inc. before Batman, Inc. was cool. She’s taking his symbol and style and remixing it for her own personal use. Where Batman was born in pain and suffering, Batgirl was borne out of inspiration and exhilaration. Life can be better. Batgirl is going to make it better by staking a claim.

It’s about fighting crime as much as it is about getting a thrill. Babs Gordon is cocky and confident, and she’s out to make a name for herself. She claims the arcade (the same arcade from Dark Knight Returns that Carrie Kelly hung out at) in the name of “the fucking Batgirl.” Earlier, she refers to Gotham as “her city.”

If Batman represents the triumph of one many over the injust, Batgirl represents a city that’s willing to rise up and police its own. She’s the civilan who looks at injustice and gets proactive. She even inspires the crowd at the arcade to get in on the action and reject the drug dealers. The encounter turns more violent than she’d intended.

Batgirl is still just a teenager, and she doesn’t have the reputation of Batman yet. He controls the thugs he fights by way of his reputation and prowess. They know that when he arrives, they’re in trouble. They’ve been taught to fear him, and fear spreads like a virus.

There is power in the idea of Batman, but that power isn’t enough in and of itself. You need more than just will and enthusiasm to be a Batman. Batgirl will eventually get there, but in this first stab at taking back her city, she doesn’t quite have the reputation she needs. She hasn’t become an idea yet.

I think that Batgirl is a stronger, or maybe a healthier, idea than Batman. Batman, as an idea, requires a sacrifice. Someone has to be the one to take one for the team and live a broken life. Batman doesn’t get friends or lovers like normal people do. He has family, but it’s a family united in a very specific crusade. There’s a engine made of tragedy driving them. Even Tim Drake, way back when, wanted to be Robin because there has to be a Robin, or else Batman is lost. Sacrifice.

The idea of Batgirl, though, doesn’t have tragedy at the heart of it. She’s doing it because it’s fun, because it’s a thrill, and because it’s the right thing to do. Her parents aren’t dead, she wasn’t beaten into desiring vengeance, and she wasn’t guilted into the gig. She looked up and saw someone else doing the right thing and said, “I want to do that, too.” While Bruce Wayne is Batman, forever and ever, Batgirl can take off the mask if she needs to.

Put differently: Batman is the demon that materializes out of the night. When I think of Batgirl, I think of this Marcos Martin piece:

Dark Knight, meet Dark Angel.

next: trust me, it really is better with the masks on.

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Frank Miller Owns Batman: “no hope at all”

July 11th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

In Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, Thomas Wayne loomed large. His influence on Bruce Wayne is the genesis of the Batman, rather than a crime fighter. It’s right there. “…yes. Father. I shall become a bat.”

This positions Batman and his crusade as Wayne’s way of honoring his father. The relative lack of Martha Wayne in Year One–and over the course of the next twenty years of Bat-comics–and Grant Morrison’s time-spanning Batman tales in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne suggest that inspiring heroism is something the men of the Wayne family do. They’re following in the footsteps of their fathers.

What about the Wayne women? Ehhhh, they’re cool, I guess. But hey, did you know that the Wayne men freed slaves/fought Nazis/killed monsters/blah blah blah?

Miller and Lee’s All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is interesting, because Martha gets all the attention, barring a mention of The Mark of Zorro being Thomas’s favorite movie. (Which, in a way, ties him to the idea of Batman even more directly, because Bruce’s crime fighting persona and decision to become a crime fighter is a direct result of the movie. The son is attempting to impress the father.) Thomas gets short shrift. It’s a notable shift in focus, and one that passed me by on the first read.

My gut wants me to put a hard label on Thomas Wayne’s influence. Children are a product of their parents, and it just makes sense that the same would hold true for Batman. Off the top of my head, Thomas provided the steel that drives Batman. He was a doctor who saved thousands of lives and was dedicated to his job. He understands the power of a calling. He’s the steel in Bruce’s backbone.

It follows, I think, that Martha is the hope inside Batman, the little voice that elevates him above the Punisher (driven by anger) or Spider-Man (driven by guilt). It is true that his quest is revenge on the nebulous crime. I don’t think that you can argue against that. “I am vengeance. I am the night. I spend a lot of time making people afraid of me.” But at the same time, he’s genuinely trying to protect others from his bogeyman. There’s an altruistic element there, wrapped in a seriously personal crusade.

Bruce Wayne: “I heard her cough her last and I pressed my hand against my mother’s breast just in case there was any hope at all and there wasn’t any heartbeat. No hope at all. Just her blood. On my hand. It’ll never wash off. Never.”

When he says “No hope at all,” that’s the big turning point for Bruce Wayne. That’s the moment his childhood shudders and snaps under the weight of his parents’ murder. There’s an element of guilt in the attention he pays to her blood on his hands, as well.

Miller and Lee attach hope to Martha, and leave Thomas where he landed. There’s something there, isn’t there? It’s the mother as nurturing figure, as support, and when his parents are killed, she’s the one Bruce goes to for comfort. “Maybe they aren’t dead.” But, no: they are. And he is lost.

Martha Wayne is why Bruce Wayne relates to Dick Grayson, and regrets how he’s treating him. Wayne’s facade cracks when he thinks of how the murder of his parents affected his life, and it gets him to show real human kindness to Grayson.

The kicker is Alfred. He was there before and after the murder, and he’s the closest thing we have to an outside observer. He’s the only person in the world who can track Wayne’s progress from child to dark knight. He tells a story about how Bruce was always wild, even as a kid. He was innocent, an “angel” Alfred calls him, but wild. He craved adventure.

I’ve got enough younger cousins to know that each kid really is a snowflake. Two kids raised by the same people will have wildly different personalities and interests. Some kids are active and will climb anything. Others like jokes. Others are divas. Nurture counts, but nature goes a long way, too. Alfred relating how Bruce was always wild and dark suggests to me that his time as Batman was meant to be. When faced with tragedy, he reacted according to his personality. Others (meaning: everyone else in the entire world) would have mourned and gotten on with their lives. Grayson’s arc would have been a natural one, if not for Batman’s influence. For young Bruce Wayne, though, fighting crime was the sanest possible choice. It was his way of coping with the murder.

Alfred says that Martha never knew her son. He’s right. You can never tell how someone is going to turn out. A sweet kid could pull the wings off flies in private, and a bully might be an utter romantic with the right girl. Martha knew her son as a wild child, someone who would climb and crawl and fall. As she died, she watched her son “become a demon,” Alfred says. The murder knocked all of the innocence out of him like a punch to the stomach.

Tie these two scenes together. Bruce Wayne watches and hears his mother die. While that’s happening, she’s looking directly into his eyes. As she dies, as the last vestige of hope in his life slips away, he is lost, and she witnesses it. His childhood breaks in that span of time between her last gasp and her death. What’s left is the wildness, that darkness that haunted his childhood. It brings to mind a line from Dark Knight Returns: “My parents taught me a different lesson… lying on this street… shaking in deep shock… dying for no reason at all. They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to.” The cold, hard side of the world poisoned his childhood.

What’s interesting about Miller’s take is how he ties the death of Martha and the idea of hope with Batman’s sadness and softness toward Robin. This is early in his career, and he’s still playacting at being Batman. He’s got a Clint Eastwood growl that he finesses by way of a razor held between his teeth. He laughs like a loon when diving in to fight crime. He’s building a persona, one which will be whittled down over the years into the platonic ideal of Batman.

The hope, the little bursts of sadness here in defiance of his calculated persona, come when Martha slips around and in front of his Thomas Wayne facade. She’s the voice that whispers everything will be okay when his father tells him to buck up and stand tall. She creeps in around the edges of the cape and cowl.

Bruce Wayne is a product of his upbringing, from having loving parents to witnessing their murder, but it was his wild nature that led to the Batman. The result is a creature that’s initially torn between vengeance and hope, a monster who is so sure of what he believes in that he doesn’t think that grief is a valid option, or that acceptance is healthy. No, they’re sacrifices upon the altar of his war. Later, he realizes the error of his ways and manages to reconcile the influences of Martha and Thomas on his methods. For now, he sees himself as a general in a war.

This will change. It has to, really. Will alone can only keep you going for so far.

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