Friday, April 22, 2005

Trade Paperback-O-Rama: From the gloriously, awesomely excellent (Marvel Masterworks Vol. 24) to the gloriously, awesomely awful (early Batman comics)

I mentioned that I bought a chunk of trade paperbacks over the past couple weeks. I have already extolled the virtues of Nil: A Land Beyond Belief, which is simply excellent. Here is what I thought of the rest of them, in descending order of excellentness:

1. Marvel Masterworks Vol. 24 (X-Men #111-120) by Claremont and Byrne. When you pick up an issue of Doom Patrol or The Blood of the Demon (and you do, don't you?) and page through it, it's almost impossible to believe that Byrne was once good. When you check out X-Men: The End (I know you're buying that, aren't you?), it's like it's written by someone completely different from this Chris Claremont. I got this last week for half-price because there is a small rip in the cover jacket. I have some issues with my comics shop, but they're cool in a lot of ways, and this is one. This sucker has been out of print for a while, and although I love the Marvel Essentials, the Masterworks are better because of the full-color glory. These issues are the Claremont/Byrne team really peaking. Yes, the previous bunch o' issues saw Phoenix save the universe, and they are great stories, but in these issues, the art is kicked up a notch and the stories - holy crap. Magneto in Antarctica, Sauron and Ka-Zar, the "origin" of Xavier's animosity with Amahl Farouk, Sunfire and Moses Magnum (!?), Alpha Flight - man, these issues are packed with everything you could ever love about superhero comics - great action, just enough character development to keep everything interesting, cliffhangers, weird villains, team-ups, misunderstandings between groups of heroes, angst - it's a smorgasbord of goodness! Lots of things introduced here - Nanny, Zaladane, Mariko, Wolverine's name, Amahl Farouk, Proteus - un-freakin-believable. I don't even think I'm looking at these with nostalgic, seven-year-old eyes (the age I was when they came out), because I didn't read them until I was a jaded nineteen- or twenty-year-old (when I borrowed them from a friend of mine). This is why I wrote about how to fix the X-Men a while back. These are brilliant comics.

2. The Legend of GrimJack Vol. 2 by Ostrander and Truman. Speaking of brilliant comics, this week saw the second GrimJack trade paperback, reprinting the first seven issues of the ongoing series. Again, holy crap. Ostrander is one of the best and underrated comics writer EVER, and this, his early work, is just as good as his later work, even though he has gotten more subtle with age. Truman's art looks better here than it does later in his career, in my opinion. He hasn't gotten worse, just more polished, and that's not a good thing when you're dealing with Cynosure, which is supposed to look crappy. His work here shows both sides of the city - the shit and the shine, and it's all beautiful. Excellent, self-contained stories, along with slightly longer stories (issue #1 is self-contained, then there's a two-parter, another single issue story, then a three-parter) that all add certain elements to the world of Cynosure that will be important later on (I assume; I've never read GrimJack - yes, I suck). There's violence, romance, action, characterization, creepy aliens, weird science, a John Lennon pastiche, more hot chicks throwing themselves at Gaunt - wow. Go buy now.
(Published by IDW, by the way, and it will cost you 20 thin dollars. Worth every penny.)

3. The Long Haul by Antony Johnston and Eduardo Barreto. And then there's this. It's a nice book, but I can't recommend it. Barreto's art is solid and works well in the black-and-white format. It's nice to see a Western in comics that doesn't also involve zombies or vampires. It's a simple heist book, and that's the problem with it. Johnston sets everything up very nicely, but there's no sense of danger or tension. Does anyone really think anything bad is going to happen to Cody Plummer and his band of lovable outlaws? There's not even a hint that what they are doing (robbing a train of 1.9 million dollars) is wrong. I'm not for a big moral push, but some hint of it might be nice. Jeff Mariotte, who created Desperadoes, gives a nice blurb on the back, but he uses the word "clockwork," and that's what it is - a paint-by-numbers heist book. Not worth your hard-earned money.
(Published by Oni Press, a company I love, and it will deprive you of 14 dollars and 95 cents. Take your girl to Arby's instead!)

4. The Batman Chronicles Vol. 1 by Finger and Kane. If you can read, you will know that I think these are gloriously, awesomely bad comics. Buy this book now!!!! Okay, they're awful, and I will discuss that soon, but they're seminal comics, and the idea is excellent - present the Batman comics in chronological order. Thus, we get Detective #27-38 and all of Batman #1, and subsequent volumes should jump back and forth between the two. I truly hope that DC publishes more of these, since they are comics everyone should read.

But aren't they gloriously, awesomely awful? Well, yes. Reading these makes one wonder why ANYONE calls this the Golden Age of comics. I mean, essentially, Kane was doing what artists today are doing - picking up a pencil and drawing figures. So why is he so bad at it? Artists in the Renaissance could draw figures, so why, 500 years later, did Kane suck at it? I don't know, but I'm sure someone out there does.

Also, why are we talking about today's books being so grim and gritty? Batman is the freakin' Punisher in these books, but apparently, kids were a lot tougher in '39, because we could sell this stuff to them without worrying that they were going to go off the deep end. Let's go through this volume briefly and look at the glorious awfulness:

Issue #27: Bruce smokes a pipe for most of the volume. I would bring that back. Commissioner Gordon gets a call that a man has been found murdered, and he invites his socialite friend Wayne along for the ride!!!! Police work was so cool back in '39. The "Bat-Man" also drives that excellent red car. He should have kept that sucker. When Stryker goes into the acid bath, the "Bat-Man" says, "A fitting end to his kind." Excellent!

Issue #28: The "Bat-Man" kicks a guy off a roof. In the second issue, it's Bruce Wayne: Murderer!

Issue #29: Doctor Death! Kevorkian's assistant is an "Indian" named Jabah. He's red. Why? I don't know. To paraphrase "Frasier," "Indian embassy on line 1!" The "Bat-Man" gets shot and goes to a doctor (not Leslie Tompkins, but it could be that Tommy guy from "Hush" - in fact, if Loeb had referenced that, that storyline would have been much cooler). The doctor is suspicious and asks how he shot himself without leaving powder burns. Bruce says, "I do funny things sometimes, Doc. I'll tell you all about it some day." Ah, the rich - so droll! If he had been poor, that doctor would have been on the horn to the cops! Then, of course, he lets Doctor Death burn to death (or does he????)

Issue #30: The return of Doctor Death! See, even in 1939 the bad guys couldn't stay dead! Bruce Wayne goes to the house of someone who's been threatened and investigates. The man's wife doesn't even wonder why this strange man is asking questions. We learn that Dr. Death's new assistant is a "Cossack," just like Jabah, although he's dressed like ... I don't know, a dervish? He's wearing a freakin' fez, after all! The Batman kills him, anyway, so who cares. That's two on the body count, by the way.

Issue #31: The Monk story! The first appearance of Julie Madison, Bruce Wayne's fiancee! It's a pretty cool cover. We learn that Batman lives in New York. This is mentioned a couple of other times. He saves Julie from killing a man (she's under a spell) and tells her to tell Bruce Wayne everything that happened. WTF? Why? She doesn't question, because she's a woman! She goes on an ocean voyage, and Batman breaks out the bat-glider and the Batarang! Whoo-hoo! For some reason, when the Batman finds Julie in Paris, there's a big ol' gorilla just hanging out in her hotel room! Finally, the issue ends with a kind-of cliffhanger. It's a two-parter!

Issue #32: The first stupid "death-trap"! The Monk has Batman in his power, but instead of putting a bullet in his brain, he throws him in a pit full of wolves. Batman wins! He also kills a few more people, the Monk and his lovely assistant Dala, but since they were vampires, it doesn't count.

Issue #33: The origin of Batman! Whoo-hoo! Sheesh, Finger did it in two pages. How come Frank Miller took four issues? After the origin, Bruce is strolling around downtown Manhattan, looking natty with his pipe and Rex Harrison hat. Suddenly a dirigible out of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow shows up and starts blasting everything! Batman's on the case! For the first time, he uses a gun - but not to shoot at a person. That won't last. He also uses his vast scientific knowledge to stop the dirigible. Go Batman! He destroys the dirigible in mid-air, so that's more killing. He also kills the head bad guy - he throws a gas pellet into Dr. Kruger's cockpit, and the plane crashes and kills him, so that's at least one more body on the ledger, and probably more, since someone had to be operating the dirigible.

Issue #34: It's the first appearance of the Question! Okay, maybe not, but some dude without a face! Turns out this story took place after the Monk story but before the Dr. Kruger story. Chronologically my ass, DC! Bruce also sees a man he thinks is an old friend of his, but it turns out to be a guy without a face. My question is, how many people does Bruce Wayne know without faces??? Dark Knight Detective - yeah, right. The guy, Charles Maire, has no features because the bad guy, the Duc D'orterre, burned them off "with a terrible ray." How does Charles eat???? Screw you for asking - it's a comic book! Anyway, there's another stupid death trap, which Batman escapes rather easily. He goes into the "flower garden," where the flowers have faces. Kane must have been trying some of that newly-illegal mary jane, if you ask me. Here's the cool thing - the faces in the flowers ARE NEVER EXPLAINED! WTF? The Duc dies, but it's not Batman's fault.

Issue #35: The splash page shows Batman holding a gun. How cool. Commissioner Gordon AGAIN invites Bruce along to a crime scene. More politically incorrect villains - this time, Hindu "idol-worshippers," although no one mentions that the white people in this story act like jerks, while the Hindus are just trying to get their property back. Screw you, Hindus - your precious religious artifacts belong to the West! Batman cracks jokes as he beats up bad guys - "Don't you know it's dangerous to play with knives!" He's like Peter Freakin' Parker! Batman enters the inscrutable Chinatown, and we meet Wong, the "mayor," who's actually portrayed positively. Way to go, Finger and Kane! There's actually a twist at the end, and Batman kills again! It's sort of a mistake, but he throws something at the bad guy (no spoilers here!), who falls out a high window and dies on the pavement. Where's the arrest warrant on Batman, Commissioner????

Issue #36: The cops finally get with it and take a shot at Batman. It's the first appearance of Hugo Strange, who disappeared until those great Englehart/Rogers/Austin issues, and now is overdone. Sigh. Anyway, Hugo's grand scheme is to create a fog so thick the cops can't see any crimes taking place. Yes, it's as stupid as it sounds. Oh, and one of the cops is called Clancy. Earlier, one of the cops was Kelly. Because, you know, ALL cops are Irish. Batman cracks jokes again. Hugo Strange says, "I'll crush him as readily as I crush this glass!" as he breaks a glass in his hand. Dude, get some Bactine on that - that has to sting. Instead of killing Batman, Hugo whips him. I'm not getting into the whole sado-masochistic thing Hugo's got going on, but I'm amazed no writer has ever run with it.

Issue #37: This begins so well. The narration reads: "The Batman, having lost his way on a lonely by-road, stops before a lone house to ask directions" (Emphasis mine). At least he's not like most men, but he's just wandering around the countryside (in what looks like a Batmobile - it's black and streamlined, at least) and he got lost???? WTF? Anyway, he gets embroiled in a case of double-crossing ... well, grocers. No, it's more than that! The grocery business is just a front! Batman uses infrared goggles! Another stupid death-trap, as the bad guys put Bats in a bag and throw him in the river, from which he quickly escapes. He sort of kills another guy - he punches him, and the guy falls backward onto a sword. I'll forgive him for that.

Issue #38: Say it with me: "The Sensational Character Find of 1940 ... Robin, the Boy Wonder!" Two pages of the origin. Did we really need "Batman: Year Three"? I love the weird ritual Batman and Dick Grayson go through to initiate young Dick into the business of crime-fighting. It's like the Klan! The small town run by Boss Zucco seems awfully big, but oh well. Batman smiles, and it's as creepy as you might expect. Robin joins in the killing, as he kicks some random bad guy off the scaffolding. Way to take care of your ward, Bruce - turn him into a murderer!

Batman #1: The origin of Batman, re-told for the first of many times. Still only two pages! This issue is, of course, the one with the Joker. You know what? This story holds up. It's creepy, a little scary, with a great villain, and Batman actually having problems stopping him. It's not surprising the Joker is quite possibly the greatest comic book villain ever. The other stories in the issue are okay. We get the return of Hugo Strange, as he turns mental patients into monsters! Batman mounts a machine gun on the Bat-plane and says, "Much as I hate to take human life, I'm afraid this time it's necessary!" This time, Bruce? What about all the other times? He kills two of the monsters, but what the hell - they're mental patients, so screw 'em! The third story introduces the Cat, a gorgeous femme fatale jewel thief. No, it's not Catwoman! It's the Cat! Also a pretty good story, although - get this - Batman LETS HER GO, and even stops Robin from pursuing her! No wonder all those chick bad guys think they pull that crap with him - it works! He also breaks the fourth wall to tell all us kids that "crooks are yellow without their guns," so we shouldn't admire them. Unlike, say, weirdly dressed figures with machine guns mounted to their planes - them we should admire! The last story is another Joker story, which doesn't work as well because he's using the same schtick - Joker venom. He gets knifed at the end, but survives, because Finger and Kane knew they had a good one.

I've mocked this a lot, but it's still totally worth your money, because it is part of comics history. It's very cool to read these in one sitting, all in a row, since most Batman stories are presented in a vacuum. Yes, they're goofy and not-too-good, but you should check this volume out anyway.

In review: Batman Chronicles - gloriously awful. Marvel Masterworks - brilliant comics. GrimJack - brilliant comics. The Long Haul - eh. Seek and you shall find!

8 Comments:

Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I know I've read those early Batman stories before...I just can't remember where.

Have they been reprinted before?

4/22/2005 08:08:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

Taking the old Batman stories to task for their logical fallacies and political incorrectness is like overanalyzing a Scooby Doo mystery by comparing it to a Sherlock Holmes story.

This is from a time when comics were actually written FOR KIDS for Pete's sake! And honestly, considering it was disposable kids' entertainment from the '30s, the plot holes are a lot less egregious and forgiveable than the kind you find in a Jeph Loeb comic that's written for modern-day 30 year olds, and it's definitely light years ahead of Countdown.

Way to take a comic (and yourself) a little too seriously. What's next, dissecting the logical fallacies in a Popeye cartoon? Stop judging this work by your jaded, adult Miller-ized comic-reading eyes and try to channel the 8 year old inside of you. These stories are brilliant, especially when taking into account that the whole superhero genre was so damn young at the time.

A cool thing to spot: in some of the issues you can see Kane experimenting with some different looks for Batman, such as the "clawed" gloves that Porter also used in the '90s JLA. I thought Porter invented that shtick, but it was surprising to see such a cool idea pop up in Batman's first year of existence!

4/22/2005 08:29:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Ah, T., you're right, but if DC wants us to take these things seriously, then we must. And I did say they were glorious and awesome. I love these comics, even though I mocked them. And you say they were written as disposable fun for kids. Well, yeah, but a lot of kids' literature today is excellently written and very good. I don't think you're saying that Finger and Kane deliberately set out to insult children's intelligence, which seems to be what you're implying (although I'm probably wrong - I often am). The political incorrectness - I'm not taking them to task for it, I'm just pointing it out. It's fun to check out the attitudes of the so-called "less enlightened" times - it makes me feel morally superior. These are definitely better than, say, Countdown (and I'm wondering when Jeph Loeb stole your lunch money), but even stuff written for children shouldn't be so goofy so often. That said, if I channel my inner 8-year-old and admit I love these wonderfully wacky comics, will you channel your inner critic and admit that they are technically not that good?

Some of these issues have been reprinted before, Brian - the Monk two-parter and Hugo Strange's monster story in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, and the first Joker story in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, while 'Tec #27 was reprinted, probably most recently in 'Tec #627, which had the original, a retelling from the 1960s, and two modern retellings.

4/22/2005 09:20:00 PM  
Anonymous gestalt said...

I read these Batman comics as a kid, from a kid's point of view they are simply AWESOME. Good post, Greg. But I for one can't admit they are no good technically, they do their job too well! Are you kidding? Batman? Batman!

Claremont/Byrne X-Men, ahhh...remember when the X-Men were the X-Men? Lots of things introduced here that later turned to shit, Kitty Pryde: Ninja is just around the corner, and who cares about Moses Magnum anyway? But Claremont has his finger on the pulse here, and Byrne makes everything look astounding as the X-Men go all around the world. If only that freshness could have gone on right up to #200!

But then it all turned to ashes, didn't it? Sad stuff.

4/22/2005 11:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

That review of "The Batman Chronicles Vol. 1" Is the best comic review I have ever read. I saw that selling last week and passed it buy, I need to buy that now!

4/23/2005 12:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I never knew how much I wanted to see Batman thrown into a pit full of wolves! Man, that's a death trap worthy of the name.

Do more reviews like this one!

4/23/2005 12:33:00 AM  
Blogger Ali Choudhury said...

That Chronicles review was brilliant.

4/23/2005 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger chasdom said...

I've generally had the opposite judgment on the Byrne/Claremont X-Men - this is the kind of stuff that I would have eaten up as a kid, but it's really not written for adults. That's my impression of the Dark Phoenix Saga, at least. A little deeper and a little more intelligent than your standard comic fare at the time, but not enough to keep my adult mind interested. (see also: Englehart). Although, that may be my preference for characterization over plot talking.

So Grimjack Vol 2 is better place to start? Good to know, I'll bump that one up on my list.

Even the positive reviews of the Long Haul made it sound zzzzzzzzzzzzz...

Early Batman is like the action movie that all your buddies tell you to go see, and so you go see it by yourself, and you expect something that is amazingly high quality and serious, and it's terrible. So you get mad at your friends, and they say "but we laughed all the way through it" and you're like "doh!". It's all about your state of mind.

I don't know if Brian was being facetious, but the most recent reprintings of these issues were the 2000 Millenium Editions of Tec 27 & 38 and Bats #1. Anyway, kudos for DC for this great project, giving us a more complete slice of history.

4/24/2005 07:28:00 PM  

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