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

27 March 2008

Batman: No Man's Land, v. 1

Collects: Batman #563-4; Batman: Shadow of the Bat #83-4; Detective Comics #730-1; Legends of the Dark Knight #116 (1999)

Released: September 1999 (DC)

Format: 200 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 1563895641

When I first heard the idea of the No Man’s Land crossover in the Batman titles in the late ‘90s, I thought it was ridiculous. The premise was this: Because of disasters in Gotham City, the federal government evacuates the willing, then declares the city off limits to the rest of the world. Those inside Gotham can’t leave; aid from outside can’t get in. The city has to fend for itself.

Preposterous. Much too heavy for me to suspend my disbelief from.

Then came Katrina, and suddenly, No Man’s Land didn’t seem quite so ridiculous.

Batman: No Man’s Land, v. 1 coverBatman: No Man’s Land, v. 1 starts 93 days into the crisis, with gangs taking control of the streets and marking their territories with graffiti. Batman hasn’t been seen since the beginning of No Man’s Land, and the only force for order is the “Blue Boys,” the remainder of the Gotham City Police Department, although they operate in many ways like another street gang (less brutally, but with territory and tagging).

The book is divided into stories: “No Law and a New Order” and “Fear of Faith.” In the first, written by Bob Gale, the Blue Boys are on the march, securing the southern end of Gotham from the gangs who rule it. But this is the bad, new Gotham, so their tactics now include inciting street wars among their rivals. Much of the conflict is between Commissioner Gordon and one of his officers, Pettit; Gordon wants to use the minimum of force necessary, while Pettit wants to use force to make hollow-pointed emphasis of their effectiveness to the gangbangers they face. The moral arguments are intriguing, and the scene of poverty and barter is written bold. Batgirl and Batman make their return, with Batman taking on the Ventriloquist, one of his old villains, and breaking his gang.

“Fear of Faith” is a Scarecrow story written by Devin Grayson, in which he infiltrates a church that has managed to carve a small, non-aligned safehold. But the Scarecrow tries to exploit the fears of those around him, causing the priest in charge to let the Penguin violate his neutrality; things escalate from there. Unfortunately, the Scarecrow isn’t completely convincing in his machinations: he has no goal, and he wants only to study the workings of fear in the laboratory of the new Gotham. But the narrative boxes don’t quite persuade the reader that this is compelling in any way.

The book avoids the multiple artists that often mar crossovers. The first story has art by Alex Maleev, who’s a good hand with realism, and as he showed later in Daredevil, a good choice for street-level heroics. If this had been published later, DC might ruin his art with crappy coloring, but here the result is appropriately dark and gritty. Dale Eaglesham, who drew “Fear of Faith,” has a smoother line and cleaner look that isn’t quite as appropriate, but it tells the story, for the most part. (The bald, self-scarred False Faces are almost impossible to differentiate.)

Early in the book, Oracle — the information broker to superheroes and daughter of Commissioner Gordon — provides a map of the new Gotham. It’s fun to see all the names of old and influential Batman creators appear on the map as pieces of Gotham geography,3 but the map is meant to show turf boundaries. This, it’s not so good at. With so many groups, there are not enough colors, and there are some obvious mistakes. The structure of the geography makes the police involvement in the finale of “Fear of Faith” slightly problematic, as they had to cross enemy territory to get to the final showdown.

Overall, very entertaining and very promising. Its ambition carries it for the moment, but future volumes have to deliver on the premise.

Rating: (4 of 5)

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26 March 2008

Runaways, v. 6: Parental Guidance

Collects: Runaways v. 2 #13-18 (2006)

Released: October 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 144-page digest / color / $7.99 / ISBN: 0785119523

I always look forward to the next volume of Runaways, and Runaways, v. 6: Parental Guidance gives me no reason to change that.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan has created and sustained a teen drama mixed with superheroics that doesn’t disappoint. In Parental Guidance, Vaughan wraps up the “new Pride” storyline he began in Runways, v. 4: True Believers. Everything comes together as the team falls apart,1 picking up all the bits and pieces from True Believers and Runaways, v. 5: Escape to New York and wedding them into a moving finale.

Runaways, v. 6: Parental Guidance cover In the first story, Molly gets a chance to shine as she’s thrown into a group of pre-teen runaways and immediately has to become their leader in a rebellion against the Proctor, the Fagin-like adult controlling them. Molly, shown at her most mature, immediately after reveals her childhood vulnerabilities. It’s not unmissable, but it is entertaining with an ending that is moving without being precious.

The rest of the book reveals the mystery of the new Pride, which is out to take vengeance on the Runaways. The new Pride is more clever than powerful, but they still manage to be more than a match for the heroes. The Runaways’ problems come almost as much from themselves as the New Pride,2 with the new Pride exploiting their adversaries weaknesses. Vaughan doesn’t sacrifice characterization for the sake of plot or a joke — although it helps that his characters are meant to be witty and clever with the blind spots of teenagers.

Artist Adrian Alphona does an excellent job as always; it’s an indictment of the comics industry as much as a compliment to Alphona to say he can consistently draw women with body types somewhere between “anorexic” and “orca.” He can also go from relatively realistic to the fantastic world of the Gibborim, the giant angels who backed the first Pride, with ease. Unfortunately, the digest size has consistently muddied his artwork — any darkness seems to come out as too dark, obscuring the subtleties of Alphona’s work.

All this, plus an emotional ending I won’t spoil — this is about as good as it gets.

Rating: (5 of 5)

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