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

30 November 2012

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice

Collects: Penguin: Pain and Prejudice #1-5, Batman: Joker’s Asylum: Prejudice #1 (2008, 2011-2)

Released: September 2012 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 978-1401237325

What is this?: Gotham City crime lord Penguin battles with the law and Batman in his quest for riches, respect, and love.

The culprits: Writer Gregg Hurwitz and artist Szymon Kudranski, with a backup by Jason Aaron and Jason Pearson

I’m usually a fan of including backup material in collections — not just backup stories, but extra stories related to the main story. They give the buyer a little extra value, they get a forgotten story back in print, or they are interesting in some way: funny, illuminating, poignant. Perhaps it fills in a gap in a story or shows a creator’s early work.

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice collects the New 52’s first limited series; to fill out the collection, DC included Batman: Joker’s Asylum: Penguin #1 at the end (after even the rough sketches by Pain and Prejudice’s artist, Szymon Kudranski). I liked Batman: Joker’s Asylum: Penguin; the problem is that after reading it, it became obvious the main story, written by Gregg Hurwitz, is either too derivative or unconsciously imitative of Joker’s Asylum: Penguin, which was written by Jason Aaron.

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice coverAnd once the reader has made that conclusion, he or she can’t help but notice Aaron wraps up many of the same themes Hurwitz explores, except Aaron does it in a single issue rather than five.

I realize the two stories are not exactly the same. But both stories deal with the Penguin, in his modern form as a rich, powerful crime lord, seeking affection while being unable to restrain the evil impulses that make it impossible for him to be loved. Both stories feature the Penguin being tormented by childhood oppressors and his revenge on them; both stories show the Penguin ruining men completely, without physically harming them.

There are differences. Pain and Prejudice features a plot in which the Penguin battles his father and brother for the affection of his mother, the only person he feels has ever loved him. Hurwitz adds more childhood torments. Batman is a full-fledged antagonist, rather than a natural feature of Gotham appearing in the one-page cameo he receives in Joker’s Asylum: Penguin. Penguin is positioned as a master of robotics and mechanics. Pain and Prejudice’s length allows Hurwitz to show Penguin taking the apart the life of someone who was callous to his mother rather than just describing it.

But these features do not justify the four extra issues.

I understand Pain and Prejudice’s remit was to communicate Penguin’s status quo in the New 52, and elements from Joker’s Asylum: Penguin are part of the rebooted character’s personality. But Joker’s Asylum: Penguin shows these elements could have been shown much more quickly. Aaron doesn’t rely on “crappy childhood” as an excuse for villainy. And the lack of Batman as an antagonist works to Joker’s Asylum: Penguin’s advantage; we don’t have to wonder why Batman can’t stop Penguin (or why he won’t), and we’re allowed to view the Penguin’s actions against a more neutral background.

Hurwitz has Penguin, Batman, and Commissioner Gordon briefly discuss the law protecting certain morally suspect people because of their background or looks, but he doesn’t develop the idea. Although Batman does give some credence to the Penguin’s claims that appearances matter when it comes to who gets arrested, Penguin’s arguments ring hollow, considering how many murders he orders / commits in the book and who he and Batman compare him to: a spoiled pop star, an ecstasy dealer, and a philanthropic heiress getting rich off sweatshops. Penguin is a plague of crime; the other three are morally suspect but hardly Public Enemy #1, and none of them deserve what Penguin does to them.

Hurwitz seems to have trouble with the ending as well. He decides to have the Penguin go off the deep end, ordering more and more brazen robberies and launching robotic attacks; each course is completely out keeping with the rest of the book. This causes the Penguin’s undoing at the hands of Batman, of course. I can see how Hurwitz contrasts the fate of Penguin’s lover with those the Penguin destroyed earlier in the book, but the circular fate of his girlfriend in Joker’s Asylum: Penguin is much more satisfying and more in keeping with Penguin’s MO.

The art in both stories is excellent. Kudranksi’s shaded realism is excellent for a dark crime tale, painting a bleak world for a sadistic crime lord to work his violence upon. His work emphasizes the Penguin's short stature and his inferiority complex (or perhaps his infantilism); we never see his parents’ faces, nor do we see Batman’s. Occasionally the Penguin is depicted as a child when interacting with Batman. I was never quite sure what his robotic bombs were supposed to be doing, though — releasing attack birds? Causing wild birds to attack? It doesn’t help that both plans are stupid. Jason Pearson’s art on Joker’s Asylum: Penguin is much different — a cartoonier style, emphasizing Penguin’s deformities through exaggeration. The lighthearted tone fits most of the story, which focuses much more on romance than Pain and Prejudice. Pearson is still able to pull off the story’s darker parts, though.

So: go get the Batman: Joker’s Asylum: Penguin back issue rather than this collection. Pain and Prejudice is a bit overdramatic, a bit pop psychological — J.M. DeMatteis for the 21st century, perhaps — but it’s not a bad story … my favorite Bat title of the New 52, actually. But it can’t complete with the succinct story in Batman: Joker’s Asylum: Penguin.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (3 of 5)

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16 November 2012

The Helm, v. 1

Collects: The Helm #1-4 (2008)

Released: April 2009 (Dark Horse)

Format: 104 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781595822611

What is this?: A young loser, going nowhere in life, finds an artifact that gives him magical powers … but the artifact isn’t very fond of him.

The culprits: Writer Jim Hardison and artist Bart Sears

I did not know The Helm existed until I spotted it on a library shelf. But I thought the concept — a loser is chosen to possess a magical, intelligent helm, which hates him — might be amusing, so I gave it a shot.

First off: do not be afraid of this book because it has art by Bart Sears. His work on The Helm is nothing like the freakish drawings he contributed to Captain America and the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas. Whether Sears has improved or his inker (Randy Elliott) has exerted more influence, I do not know. But the art is much improved, and it communicates the major story beats. It gets across that the hero, Matt Blurdy, is a tubby klutz with a soul patch. The action scenes are simply choreographed — so simple there is actually no choreography — leaving little room for confusion.

 coverSo far, so good.

Writer Jim Hardison has the difficult task of showing Matt is a loser without making him so contemptible or pathetic the reader dislikes him. In #1, Hardison looks like he’s going too far; within the first two pages, Matt is reduced to a blubbering wreck by his girlfriend breaking up with him (and enumerating good reasons to do so as she does) and being fired from his job as a video-store clerk. He then encounters the Helm, stealing it from a garage sale and speeding away on his moped. After that, the Helm takes up the litany of Matt’s shortcomings.

Watching Matt, it’s hard to deny he’s a bit pathetic. It’s not his weight, lack of career, or fantasy / sci-fi hobbies that make him so pitiable. Rather, he is a loser, in a literal sense; until halfway through the book, we never see him succeed or take joy in anything but what he does with the Helm, and most of his adventures with the Helm turn out badly. It’s obviously not Matt who makes himself likeable; he’s slovenly, he lives in his mother’s basement, and his dialogue is alternately whining and grandiose. Footnotes in the sand: 67 Oddly, the Helm’s haranguing makes Matt sympathetic. However out of shape and unprepared he is, the reader sees the Helm as being unreasonable about the situation. Matt may be fat and incompetent with a sword, but he’s obviously trying and strangely successful.

The Helm, although a bully, is the highlight of this book. His insults are frequently funny, even if it’s only because they contain outdated words (“ninnyhammer,” “addlepate,” “slubberdegullion”). The helm crowned a long line of heroic champions and has been out of circulation for a while, so it is out of date with modern mores and culture. Hardison exploits this, having the Helm warn a scream queen about the villain during a horror movie, ask why the castaways didn’t kill Gilligan (“I would kill Gilligan”), and calling Matt’s ex, Jill, all sorts of outdated names for a woman who engages in extra-marital sex (causing Matt to defend her by saying, “Jill’s not actually that big a strumpet”). The humor is the best part of the book, and the limited series’ four-issue run means it doesn’t get stretched too thin.

The same goes for the plot, fortunately. It’s a by-the-numbers evil-is-rising, must-prepare story, and four issues is all it could support. Some details distinguish The Helm from similar plots, but the story contains nothing too surprising. Halfway through, readers will probably be able to guess how the story will end.

Jill is a bit of a problem for readers. As female leads often are, she is a status symbol rather than a character, a goal rather than someone who makes her own choices. Jill had good reasons for dropping Matt, but after he starts jogging and trying to eat better, she is all over him again. Of course when he becomes secretly cool, she totally wants to sex him. That’s just how stories like these work. The story suggests that it’s not only Matt’s self-improvement but also his new assertiveness that reawakens her attraction, but that assertiveness is mainly expressed through insulting miscommunication: he’s backtalking the Helm, and she thinks he’s telling her to shut up, stop, or go away. Jill’s attraction to Matt’s verbal abuse and aloofness is troubling. She could do so much better than Matt, even after he becomes a mystic warrior. I don’t want to overanalyze something ingrained into popular culture and used in a book that doesn’t take itself seriously, but Jill’s decisions upset some readers.

Still, The Helm was surprisingly amusing. I don’t think it could support a sequel, but by itself, it was enjoyable.

Rating: Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Half Dark Horse symbol (3.5 of 5)

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