Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

29 January 2010

Batman and the Mad Monk

Collects: Batman and the Mad Monk #1-6 (2006-7)

Released: April 2007 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401212810

What is this?: A Golden Age story of Batman vs. a vampire, retold by Matt Wagner

The culprit: Matt Wagner

Let’s not get into DC continuity. Trying to unravel it gives some people Spontaneous Bolt Syndrome (SBS, where a long piece of metal appears out of nowhere and spears the victim’s skull), and saying, “It just doesn’t matter” gives others “Irritable Mouth Syndrome” (IMS, where all manner of foul diarrhea streams from the sufferer’s mouth — or, in later mutations of the disease, keyboard).

So I’m declaring all the tellings of the story of the Monk in DC history are irrelevant to a review of Batman and the Mad Monk, written and drawn by Matt Wagner. It doesn’t matter what happened in the ‘30s, when the Monk first appeared in Detective Comics #31, and it certainly doesn’t matter that Batman took the rational decision to shoot the vampire with silver bullets while he slept in his coffin. And Gerry Conway’s pre-Crisis story in the early ‘80s certainly doesn’t matter, because Batman being turned into a vampire before being given a “special serum”37 is kinda silly. So let’s just concentrate on this one.

Batman and the Mad Monk coverSo: in what is essentially Batman: Year One territory, there are three main stories being told together: Batman is learning to be Batman and being Bruce when he needs / has to; Norman Madison, industrialist and father of Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Julie, is slowly transforming from paranoid to insane; and Jim Gordon has to deal with crime and corruption on his own force. Only the middle thread is new, but it’s the least convincing.

Admittedly, Mad Monk shows only the bottom of Norman Madison’s character arc; I haven’t read the first of Wagner’s Batman miniseries, Batman and the Monster Men, which dealt with the paranoid Madison getting into debt with the mob and Batman getting him out of it. Batman calls him by name, which causes Norman to become obsessed with the thought that Batman is trying to terrorize him in Mad Monk. He keeps trying to repay his forgiven mob debt; he loses touch with reality, and he doesn’t recognize his daughter’s peril. With Madison starting off the book as unbalanced, we never see him as anything but an insane man who does illogical things; when he decides to kill his loan shark (who has said there’s no debt, I don’t want to see you again, stay away), it makes no sense, but it’s no worse than anything else in the story. Since Madison’s actions barely make an impression on the main plot, it seems a waste of space.

The overriding story is of Niccolai Tepes — The Monk — and his followers. Niccolai is a vampire; his followers want to be. Together, they bring women who won’t be missed to Niccolai, and after he feeds, they share in the leftover blood. Niccolai’s vampirism is supposed to be the first time Batman has met a supernatural opponent, but he’s as steady and rational as a Golden Age character about it — which is impressive, as the Batman should be, and entirely appropriate. Julie gets sucked into the plot as another victim, bringing home the danger to Batman.

Although vampires and Batman are not exactly a new combination, the story is well enough done. Unfortunately, because the story has to share space with Jim Gordon vs. bad cops and Norman Madison’s descent into more madness, two stories that feel tangential, the entire book feels padded. That’s deeply impressive for a 144-page book. If this had been a four-issue mini, Batman vs. Niccolai the Mad Monk, that might have been exciting. Maybe it would have allowed him to write a better ending, one in which the heroes intentionally defeat the villains. But instead Wagner has made Mad Monk into the second half of a two mini arc concentrating on Batman’s early career …

Maybe that’s what I’m missing here. Maybe I need to read Batman and the Monster Men to get the overall effect. Maybe … I don’t know. But if you’re going to be telling a larger story, why retell this story? I promised I wouldn’t get into continuity, but was the original story or Conway’s retelling such an undiscovered classic? Why choose the Mad Monk? I don’t know.

Mad Monk does hit the “Year One” beats we expect, with Jim Gordon battling corruption on the Gotham PD, Batman still trying to get a handle on what it means to have a Rogue’s Gallery, and Harvey Dent as a DA. The coming of Robin is teased at the end. If you have a jones for early Batman and can’t take Golden Age writing / art, this will help ease that craving.

Wagner’s art is a draw here. He draws a beautiful Batman, managing to reflect the Golden Age while simultaneously making Batman look modern. Based on his work here, I have to say Wagner draws one of the great Batmen, and he even makes Batman look good when he takes punishment. And he takes a lot of it in Mad Monk, a convincing amount for a novice superhero taking on dangerous men and women. On the other hand, I’m not sure about other parts of Wagner’s art. For some reason, Wagner seems to believe all women should have a bare midriff — either that, or he has a navel fixation. Every female character wears shirts that show off her stomach at one point or another. And female faces, especially Niccolai’s assistant Dara, occasionally feel wrong, with overlarge eyes for no apparent reason. (I’ll write off the accordion-like walls of a pit trap as a tribute to the movies rather than a mistake.)

Mad Monk takes an old story and makes it new. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great story to begin with, and the newer trappings don’t help it any. There are some saving graces, but mostly, this is a forgettable Batman adventure.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol (2 of 5)

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23 January 2010

Fantastic Four, v. 3 (hardcover)

Collects: Fantastic Four #514-24 (2004-5)

Released: November 2005 (Marvel)

Format: 256 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785120117

What is this?: A pair of trade paperbacks — Disassembled and Rising Storm — showing the FF fighting villains and bad PR thrown together in one hardback.

The culprits: Writer Mark Waid and pencilers Mike Wieringo and Paco Medina

I swear I read Fantastic Four, v. 3 (hardcover), but looking through the book days later, not much is jogging the ol’ memory.

Something about Fantastic Four since John Byrne’s run makes all the major plot developments slide through the skull without making contact with more than a couple of synapses. Oh, there are plot developments that grab the attention briefly, but then they fade from the memory until they kill Sue again and you realize you haven’t thought much about what’s happening with Fantastic Four lately. (Or until Reed has an extended run as Mr. Fan-Fascist or the creative team brings back an extra kid or whatever shiny object grabs someone in editorial’s attention.) Other Marvel teams can have drastic roster changes, and the status quo can change for years at a time on titles like X-Men and Avengers. But the Fantastic Four are a family — a static, unchangeable family that won’t let anyone escape.

Fantastic Four, v. 3 cover -- minus the words Fantastic FourSo that’s what writer Mark Waid is up against here. Poor Waid, I would think; but that’s sort of his strong point. He’s steady. Give him a superhero setup, and he’ll give you a half dozen stories on it. Sometimes they’ll be great, like his Captain America and Flash runs. He’ll rarely have a dud run. The worst that will happen is that he’ll play with the company’s toys in a largely humdrum way, then put them back where he found them. And frankly, comics will always need a lot of those guys, even though they’re not in fashion now.

Waid plays with the standard tropes of the Fantastic Four in a couple of ways. In the first arc, “Dysfunctional” (#514-6), the team fights the Wizard and his new — new, I say! — Frightful Four. New lineups haven’t worked for the Wizard in the past, and they won’t work in the future. It’s not really a spoiler to say they don’t work here, especially since the Frightful Four meets their downfall the way they often do: betrayed by a woman. Wizard does the evil mastermind thing and throws away a loyal minion for no reason. A girl Johnny is interested in has surprise powers (like Frankie Raye!). It all feels done before, which isn’t surprising. Waid and co-writer for the arc Karl Kesel’s big, most original idea seems to be to position the Frightful Four as a kind of family, a dark reflection of the Fantastic Four, but that just feels forced, with family dynamics worse than the original Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

In “Fourtitude” (#517-9) and “Rising Storm” (#520-4), however, it gets better. Aliens show up to kill Sue, Johnny and Sue switch powers, and then Galactus shows up to use Johnny as a herald. A very crappy herald, but that’s not anyone’s fault. It’s actually kinda amusing, with general dimbulb Johnny trying to get a handle of Galactus, cosmic powers, and trying not to commit genocide. Waid even gets to work in Quasar, which is nice — it’s always pleasing to see a minor character used in an appropriate role, giving the Marvel Universe some coherency. It even leads to some interesting characterization for Sue and Johnny, although it’s the kind that can easily never be referenced again.

The pencils come from Paco Medina (“Dysfunctional”) and the late Mike Wieringo (“Rising Storm” and “Fourtitude”). I like Weiringo’s art; he certainly could draw some mean monsters and aliens, and his Galactus is sufficiently imposing, if conventional. His depictions of the alien incursion during “Rising Storm” is underwhelming, however; it looks more like someone built tall, fancy pilings than an alien ship wreaking havoc. I never really adjusted to Medina’s pencils, though; his faces and females seemed a little … geometrically off. The inking is strangely heavy at points in his last issue as well, giving it the look of bad reproductions in a few panels.

Still, there’s too much of a feeling of … inconsequentiality. These are relatively interesting stories — well, “Rising Storm” and “Fourtitude,” at least — but when the day is done, the toys are neatly back in their box, and the day’s fun is forgotten.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol (3 of 5)

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15 January 2010

The Unwritten, v. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity

Collects: The Unwritten #1-5 (2009)

Released: January 2009 (DC / Vertigo)

Format: 144 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781401225650

What is this?: The son of the author of a Harry Potter-like fantasy series gets drawn into a conspiracy about his real parentage and the affect literature has on the real world — and vice versa.

The culprits: Writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross

All right — here’s what I know about The Unwritten, v. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity:

1. The central conceit — that of the intersection of fiction and reality, of whether literature comes from some place “real” — is an interesting one, and it hasn’t been done to death.

2. The hero, Tom Taylor, is the son of a man who wrote a series of boy wizard books that was bigger than Harry Potter.

3. There is real magic in our world.

4. There is a real literary conspiracy in our world. The conspiracy has been going on for more than a century, involving Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.

5. Somehow, geography in books and where books were written is important.

6. There is no #6.

Unwritten, v. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity coverI really wish Tommy Taylor wasn’t bigger than Harry Potter. I really do. It’s not supposed to be a big deal for the reader … but it makes everything harder to swallow. If the Tommy Taylor series were a knockoff of Harry Potter, one moderately successful but not as popular as Rowling’s creation, it would be easier to understand.

But I have a feeling that Tommy’s popularity is going to be a small but essential part of the plot. The conspiracy that has been shaping whose stories have been told and listened to has made Tommy Taylor popular because Wilson Taylor was cooperating with it. The popularity of the Tommy Taylor series is tied to the strength of the conspiracy.

Fantasies set in the real world can have a difficult time sustaining suspension of disbelief, and it can crumble for a myriad of reasons, each depending on the individual reader. When I look back at Unwritten, I don’t think of the positives. The effective weirdnesses built into Tom Taylor’s life drift away from my memory; I don’t think of the endless staircase in the basement of his de facto stepmother or the “reporter” who looks like a grown-up version of Tommy Taylor’s fictional female sidekick or Tom’s mysterious origins. I don’t think of the effective Harry Potter pastiches that writer Mike Carey throws in to give the reader a taste of and a background in the Tommy Taylor series, each of which is nicely drawn by artist Peter Gross. I don’t think of the conspiracy’s enforcer’s creepy powers or his running through a horror writer’s retreat with farm implements. And I don’t think of Tom himself, an aimless young man who subsists on his fame and whose only motivation is another buck on the convention circuit until allegations about his origins cause him to search for the truths.

All those are effective; all those are parts of an excellent story. No, I think of:

  • A book series that 40 percent of all literate people have read;

  • A character so popular he has inspired a cult;

  • A guest of honor at a convention who is so fragile he has security lead away a cosplayer who won’t let go of a niggling plot point;

  • Who also spouts snippets of literary geography without point or warning;

  • And a fifth issue that is essentially a biography of Rudyard Kipling, told as if the conspiracy had actually existed, completely stopping the book’s momentum as dead as a hammer.

And I don’t believe it. And unlike, say the TV series Castle, I’m not so entertained that my interest can survive that lack of belief. This should work; all the elements are there. I was interested enough after reading Unwritten #1 (which can be seen at that I bought the TPB.

I like the art from Gross. He has a flat, clean style that works well with characters — and a world — that is supposed to have come from a children’s story. The interludes from the Tommy Taylor books look different and right; somehow, they echo what such stories are supposed to look like in my head. The art has to incorporate text and melting things frequently, like a combination of Dali and a typewriter, and Gross’s art does it well. I think this is the first I’ve seen of Gross — although I know I’m well behind the curve on that — but I’m looking forward to seeing more.

I’m not sure it will be on Unwritten, though. I don’t know if I want to buy the next volume of Unwritten. I see the good points and a lot of potential … but it doesn’t interest me. I think, for once, the failure must lie with me. I just can’t recommend this book, but I can’t say my opinion is based on firm enough ground to dissuade others.

Rating: Vertigo symbol Vertigo symbol Vertigo symbol Half Vertigo symbol (3.5 of 5)

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13 January 2010

X-Men: The Shattering (mini review)

I’ve been struggling with Peter Gross and Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, v. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity. I started the review last Friday, but I still can’t decide what to make of it: the beginning of an exciting metatextual saga or a lot of potential wasted on an overexposed copy of Harry Potter with a penchant for pointing out literary geography? It’ll probably be somewhere in the middle, but to which side of the middle? Find out Freya Day.

X-Men: The Shattering coverSo, while I figure that one out, I will note that I just read X-Men: The Shattering. This book mainly duplicates the contents of Astonishing X-Men: Deathwish. Aside from the more appropriate name, there are two main differences: one, Shattering costs about $20 more new, and 2) it contains five more issues (X-Men #93-4 and Uncanny X-Men #372-4).

Is it worth the extra Jackson for five issues? No, not really, unless you’re slightly obsessive about your collected editions. (You know who you are.) Admittedly, X-Men #94 is a double issue, and there are a few pages at the end of Shattering from the X-Men 1999 Yearbook. But those pages are low-rent versions of the out-of-context ramblings that made “Stryfe’s Strike File” such a classic back in the early ‘90s. And the extra issues add to the crossover style conflicts, with the high point being Alan Davis (mainly) doing a workmanlike job. Do you get joy from seeing people do workmanlike jobs? I do not either.

On the other hand, the extra story does make the nonsense at the end slightly more comprehensible, and it does water down the bad taste that is Astonishing X-Men #1-3. The first time around, I found Astonishing inoffensive; this time, it was a chore to go through.

So if you need to read this — I don’t know why, maybe it’s an Apocalypse fetish, although that would make me weep — go for Deathwish. The stories haven’t really aged that well in the decade since Deathwish came out, and you can still buy Deathwish new online. (Although the price difference drops to about $10 on Amazon.)

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04 January 2010

2009: A Musical / Dancing Review

2009 is four days gone now. Good riddance, I say. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see the back of a year as I am for 2009. And I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe it’s the long-term gloom and doom of financial crises and greed, swine flu, and terrorism. Maybe it’s because I tried to work a home-improvement project into my schedule during December as I was also preparing for Christmas and guests. Maybe I’m just bitter. Maybe it was endless crossovers and events from Marvel and DC …

Yes, that last one sounds appropriate.

But before we give 2009 a final swock to the nuggets, I decided to look through my year’s worth of reading and point out the best of my year. (Yes, I know some — many — of these didn’t come out in 2009. I don’t care. If you want timeliness, go somewhere else.) So here are the top 5s, in Marvel (which is most of what I read) and non-Marvel lists:


5. Guardians of the Galaxy: Legacy (4): Emerging from a crossover I didn’t care about, a bunch of characters I was only vaguely aware of were stuck in a team book that seemed to be heading for permanent crossover events. But somehow the first volume worked, and worked well.

4. Mini Marvels: Secret Invasion (4): The 2009 collection of Chris Giarrusso’s Mini Marvels wasn’t as good as the 2008 version (Rock, Paper, Scissors), but it’s still hilarious. You should all go out and buy the recently released Mini Marvels Ultimate Collection.

3. Hood: Blood from Stones (4): This book, which features the Hood’s origin, showed why Brian Bendis was so eager to use the petty crook turned superpowered antihero. It also showed Bendis didn’t care about what made Blood from Stones so good.

2. Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk (4.5): A sprawling, over-the-top action movie of a comic, Planet Hulk made the Hulk interesting for the first time since Peter David left. And then Hulk was promptly handed to Jeph Loeb, who gave us Red Hulk. Way to capitalize, Marvel.

1. Age of the Sentry (4.5): Marvel’s answer to DC’s Silver Age Superman nonsense, recounted with a knowing wink and smile — but never to the detriment of the character.


5. RASL: The Drift (4): Jeff Smith’s story about a scientist / thief who penetrates alternate realities has me eager for more. Compare this to Casanova, which also has thievery and alternate realities; Casanova threw so much high concept at the reader I was screaming for it to stop, but RASL’s slow pace has me intrigued. On the other hand, RASL’s publication schedule will mean I’ll probably remain intrigued for quite a while.

4. Promethea: Collected Edition, Book 1 (4.5): Although I wasn’t as excited by the next two volumes of Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s coming-of-age / metafiction comic, this one had me eager to read the rest of Sophie Bangs’s adventures.

3. Usagi Yojimbo, v. 23: Bridge of Tears (4.5): I was greatly anticipating the only new Usagi Yojimbo reprints of the year, and Stan Sakai didn’t disappoint. Of course, Sakai and Usagi never disappoint.

2. Tales Designed to Thrizzle, v. 1 (4.5): Michael Kupperman’s absurdist masterpiece nearly snuck by me, but I was glad I found it. Now I too know the majesty that is Snake ‘n’ Bacon.

1. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (5): A classic for a reason — Art Spiegelman tells a story of one family’s collision with the Nazis and the Holocaust movingly, using not-so-funny funny animals, without making the protagonists perfect saints.

Honorable mention should go to The Essential Batman Encyclopedia (4.5) by Robert Greenberger as the outstanding comics reference book I read this year. Of course, I only reviewed two reference books, but that shouldn’t take away from the impressiveness of the book.

Reviews will resume on Friday. Here’s hoping 2010 will knock the sour taste 2009 left out of our mouths!

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