Review: Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman (#1-2)

SOME SPOILERS BELOW

I was pretty happy when DC announced a digital-first Wonder Woman series featuring rotating characters doing out-of-continuity stories.  As we saw with The Adventures of Superman, giving creators free reign on these characters can, at their best, inject them with energy often lacking in their monthly titles.  I’ve loved Azzarello’s run on the character, but I was excited to see some other takes on the Amazon Princess.

 

The first storyline, stretching over the first two issues, comes to us courtesy of Gail Simone and Ethan Van Sciver.  For Simone, it’s a bit of a homecoming to the character.  Many of current book’s detractors pine for the days when she was calling the shots.

 

The story, “Gothamazon,” sounds good on paper.  Batman is out for the count and Oracle (good to see her again) brings Diana in to take care of an unraveling Gotham City.  Batman’s rogues gallery has teamed up to take over the city and Wonder Woman goes right after them.

 

It’s a great set up, but a mixed bag in execution.  Simone seems to be working against the page count on this one, as it starts big before getting tied up (literally) too easily.  A couple of big dramatic moments both don’t pay off (the Amazon army) and aren’t sold well (the Harley/Catwoman team up).  The real stand-out moment of the book comes when the villains find themselves bound by the lasso of truth and made to confront the fears that really drive them.  It shows that Simone understands these characters at their core.  This includes WW herself, who is not just a fighter, but a healer like Batman could never be.

 

Van Sciver’s art is interesting, as I might not have guessed it was his work if his name wasn’t attached.  Gone are his distinctive, heavy shadows and detailed line work.  Instead, we get something closer to what might be considered DC’s house style.  I’m on the fence as to whether that’s a good thing for this story or not.

 

So Sensation Comics is off to a decent start, but I was hoping for a more unique reading experience.  The good news is I’ve seen the upcoming creator list and I’m sure the series will deliver some interesting WW takes in the near future.

 

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FIXED IT: The Dark Knight Rises

Today, I’m putting out the first of what I hope to be a series of posts called FIXED IT.  I’ll be going through movies I think could’ve hit the mark, but didn’t quite get there.  These won’t be terrible movies, at least in their concept, but ones that somehow lost their way. 

 

When it comes to “fixing” movies, I tend to focus on blockbusters (or movies that wanted to be).  It’s more fun to tinker with something that came off an assembly line than with a smaller, more personal piece of work.  We’ll start with The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan, with a screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.  It, of course, features Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

 

I should also mention this is meant for someone with good knowledge of the film.  This post is long enough without a recap.

 

The Diagnosis

There’s a lot of hate out there for this movie, but I enjoy it, warts and all.  It’s just those warts bother me a whole lot less than other people.  Also, I hear a lot of complaining about the movie’s plot holes, but I don’t so much care about them.  Why don’t I care?  Because of a rule I call BHFB or “Because He’s F***ing Batman.” 

 

How did Bruce Wayne get from the prison to Gotham with no resources at his disposal?  BHFB

How did he get into the city?  BHFB

How is he walking on ice other people fell through?  BHFB

How did he make a gasoline trail from said ice, up the bridge, and into some sort of pyrotechnic bat-symbol?  BHFB

 

Here’s the deal, though: BHFB only works when you’re emotionally invested in the story.  That’s the main difference between The Dark Knight Rises and The Dark Knight.  Some of the Joker’s plans make no logistical sense, but that doesn’t bug us so much because it’s a more enjoyable movie.

 

The problem isn’t the plot holes.  The problem is that the first hour or so is too dull, muddles the film’s themes, and takes us out of the story.  If you fix some fundamental problems with that section, the rest of the movie works much better.

 

So what are those problems?  Actually, there’s one really big one.  If they’d avoided that mistake they could’ve a) made things more entertaining and b) given the movie room to fine tune its other issues. 

 

Batman should NOT have quit.

 

Let’s go back to the end of The Dark Knight.  Harvey Dent has become Two Face and murdered several people.  Batman tells Gordon to say he did it, so Dent could remain a symbol of hope for the city.  Harvey was really an empty suit, who couldn’t handle the personal cost of saving Gotham.  Batman has lost the same thing Dent has, but will keep going and let himself be hated for the sake of the city. 

 

And then he goes home and gives up.

 

So we’ve started TDKR by mooting the finale of the last movie.  From there, we get to hang out with mopey Bruce as he putters around before getting back into the game.  Thank god for Catwoman livening things up, but she can only do so much.  The main character is disengaged from the movie and we disengage with him.  Plus, these scenes use valuable screen time that could’ve been used to shore up the movie’s themes.

 

Nolan’s films put a huge emphasis on world-building and theme, sometimes to the detriment of the movie itself (see Inception).  Batman Begins was about overcoming fear to do what’s right.  The Dark Knight was about finding the path between what’s right and what’s necessary, or how you fight something awful without becoming awful yourself, which resonated well in an America dealing with the War on Terror.  It’s also about, as stated before, the personal cost of doing what’s right.  The Dark Knight Rises is about not letting your responsibilities go.  Or is it about how awful Occupy Wall Street was?  Or is it about how our aristocrats need to watch their backs?

 

I’ve read a lot of interviews with Nolan and it seems what he was trying to say if you’re not taking care of the real needs of a society, it can fragment into a class struggle, which someone else can take advantage of to tear everything down.  The elites were awful, so the lower class of society was awful right back, and the result was almost the annihilation of them both.  A secondary theme is how you can’t save things based on lies.  That’s an awesome statement for a tent-pole superhero movie, but they botched the execution.

 

There are several brief references to the city not prospering as advertised, but we don’t actually see any of it, outside of the orphanage’s plight and Selina Kyle’s commentary (not exactly a trustworthy source).  We also see city officials and guys at the stock exchange acting like dicks, but that’s nothing compared to what Bane and “the people” do later on.  This is why TDKR is often interpreted as favorable toward the elite over the rabble. 

 

Also, there’s the whole fact that we want to see Batman in a Batman movie.  Batman Begins was an origin story, so it gets some latitude.  It’s fascinating to watch Bruce become Batman, but frustrating to watch him twiddle his thumbs after that’s happened. 

 

So, how would I fix all this?

 

The Fix

The movie’s first couple scenes unfold as is, because only an idiot would cut out Bane crashing the plane.    

 

We move from here to nighttime Gotham, where Batman is interceding in a crime, only to find it’s a police trap he has to fight his way out of.  As this scene ends, we go to a TV interview of Mike Engel (Anthony Michael Hall) who catches us up on what’s happened.  He’s become a full-on Batman supporter, though he’s treated as a conspiracy nut.  You see, he believes Harvey Dent killed the people Batman’s accused of taking out.  As the host drones on about Harvey being a hero and how turned around Gotham is, Engel corrects him that while organized crime is out of power, neighborhoods are suffering from neglect, schools are underfunded, and street-level crime is up.

 

We shift to the party at Wayne Manor, where Bruce is absent, not because he’s holed up like Howard Hughes, but because he’s out as Batman.  One thing that’s the same is that Bruce Wayne is being viewed as a recluse, but it’s because Batman has swallowed his life.    

 

In the interaction between Commissioner Gordon and officials, he complains about losing police and resources to budget cuts.  He’s blown off, much like he is in the existing movie.  The rest of this scene precedes as is.

 

Bruce comes home in rough shape to find Selina Kyle stealing the pearl necklace (and his fingerprints), and isn’t able to stop her escape.  She takes off with the Senator, just like in the real movie. 

 

We cut to John Blake leaving his apartment to start his day.  He leaves a small bag of groceries in front of one of the apartment doors.  After he’s passed, a woman holding a baby opens the door and picks it up.  We also see other signs of neglect in his building.  John is the movie’s guide to what’s happening to everyone else in Gotham. 

 

We follow him to his meeting with Gordon, with Blake expressing doubt over the Dent story.  Gordon lets slip his frustration that he finally has an uncorrupt force, but it’s being compromised by the city’s big wigs.

 

At the cave, Bruce is investigating Selina, looking far more buff than in the existing film.  The discussion in this version, though, is about Alfred’s concern that Bruce has lost himself in Batman, neglecting his personal life and the good he could be doing as Bruce Wayne. 

 

We keep the scene of Blake tracking the dead teenager back to the orphanage, where we find out that they’ve lost funding from both the city and the Wayne Foundation.  Through his conversation with the kid, we find out that to people on the street, Batman is still a hero. 

 

Selina’s showdown in the bar happens just like in the movie, except that Batman swoops in along with the police.  The police ignore everything else to go after Batman, allowing the bad guys to escape down the sewer.  Gordon follows them and the scene proceeds as is.

 

You know, I don’t know if I buy how John Blake figured out Batman’s identity, but I’m willing to roll with it.  It doesn’t hurt the movie and I like the “start paying attention to the details” line.

 

I think we can keep the next several scenes as is, though the hospital visit to Gordon would have to be about how Batman has to keep going, as opposed to how he must come back.

 

The ball scene stays the same, except now Selina’s threat has more bite.  I love that she steals his car.  Catwoman really gives this movie the dose of fun it needs.  So does Lucius Fox, so we can keep their scene pretty intact, without the mention of retiring.

 

Alfred and Bruce have their cave meeting, without the robo-brace thing.  Again, Alfred’s speech about how the city needs Bruce more than Batman should have more punch.  We’ve seen that the city is suffering from things Bruce Wayne can help with more than Batman, but then we have Bane.

 

The stock exchange sequence stays the same, with the exception of the cops not being amazed at Batman’s return.  It will be a more intense repeat of what we’ve seen earlier, though Batman is able to control the situation better than before.  The same goes for the rooftop battle and escape with Catwoman.

 

This leads to Alfred’s goodbye, which hinges on the lie about Rachel, so it can stay pretty much intact, with little dialogue tweaks. 

 

From this point forward, the movie stays the same, with a tweak here and there.  One of those would be some shots of regular Gothamites (including the mother and baby from Blake’s building) cowering as Bane’s army takes the streets.  This would make it clear that Gotham’s been taken over by scum and mercenaries, not “the people.”  The movie can’t make its case if we never see them.

 

As I said, this doesn’t clean up the little holes.  Hopefully, the changes I detailed would create an audience that would be more forgiving of them.  This version of the movie would convey its themes better, but also be more entertaining from start to finish. 

 

In Conclusion

TDK and TDKR are both movies that place theme and character over plot.  No matter how “realistic” Nolan tried to make them seem, they’re still superhero movies.  Superhero stories rise and fall on their theme, and how well all the other elements serve it.  When that happens, things like the police coming out from three months underground freshly shaved don’t bother viewers as much.   

 

I have to mention that I love the very end of the movie.  Even with the movie as it stands, Bruce Wayne’s last act before “dying” is to pass the last of his estate to the poorest of Gotham’s people and his Batman resources go to a regular cop.  It’s proof the movie’s heart isn’t with the aristocrats, despite what many people think.  Batman hasn’t just saved the city from Bane, he’s left its future in better hands.  That’s what he does, BHFB.

What Everyone Gets Wrong About The Dark Knight Returns

I don’t talk about Frank Miller very often any more.  It’s been many years since he’s done anything artistically interesting and his political commentary makes me feel sad for him.  How did this once-great artist turn into an angry old man who once in a while turns out lazy garbage like Holy Terror?  He’s lapsed so far into self-parody that you can sometimes forget how good the guy once was.

 

This is probably the number one reason why it’s becoming hip to dump on The Dark Knight Returns.  It’s hard to read it now and not see the beginnings of ideas he’s become fanatical about.  Also, I understand people are turned off by its depictions of Batman and, even more so, Superman.  They don’t really fit in with my ideal versions of the characters either.

 

There’s one thing, though, that people misunderstand about TDKR, and it’s something that changes the entire meaning of the book.  And what is that one thing?

 

The Dark Knight Returns does not take place in the future.

 

That’s right, it’s set in the early- to mid-eighties.  That’s why Reagan is still the President.  We’re not seeing the end of the modern-era Batman.  This is the Batman of the fifties and sixties, now old and discouraged.  The same for Superman.  Once you realize this, the meaning of the book changes.

 

TDKR is Miller’s rejection of the Eisenhower era of superheroes, which is when DC ruled the roost.  Batman is rebelling against the assumptions heroes made in those times and Superman is following them to their logical conclusion.  As much as I hate a Superman that plays along with the authorities, no matter where it takes him, it’s the logical trajectory for who he was in the Silver Age.

 

It would be the logical progression for the Silver Age Batman as well, but Miller has set the character up as the wiser counterpoint to the accepted ideology of the past age.  The trust we put in authority was misplaced, and Batman spends the entire book setting an example on how to fight the moral rot that’s set in.

 

So if we’re going to argue about the merits of TDKR, let’s make sure we’re starting from the right place.

Before Watchmen: The Year’s Biggest Non-Event

If you heard a popping sound  this week, chances are it was the sound of geeky heads exploding over DC Comics’ announcement of their Watchmen prequels, all printed under the banner Before Watchmen.

For those of you outside the comics community, who may know of Watchmen because it’s one of the few series to escape into the non-comics world, this is the equivalent of someone making a sequel to Citizen Kane.  Watchmen is our sacred cow and not just because it’s one of the greatest graphic novels of all time (it is).  What makes Watchmen special is because it was instrumental in pushing the boundaries of what superhero comics could be.  There was nothing like it before its debut and creators have killed themselves to make something like it since.

Alan Moore (the writer) is angry about this.  Alan Moore is always angry but it’s worse when he has a reason.  Dave Gibbons (the artist) gave a weak statement of support with a clear “I really wish you wouldn’t have done this” subtext.

The biggest surprise is the talent they lined up for them.  Two, Brian Azzarello and Darwyn Cooke, are favorites of mine.  Their inclusion gave pause to what would’ve otherwise been an immediate feeling of disgust.  Since then, I’ve read several opinions, pro and con, and have a clear feeling on the subject.

When it comes to the books themselves, I’m indifferent.  It doesn’t matter who is working on them.  Watchmen is a complete work and I have no interest in digging further into its back story.  I don’t mean this to reflect poorly on the talent.  If Darwyn Cooke he has a story to tell about The Minutemen, who am I to tell him he can’t?  Just don’t expect me to buy it.

Here’s what irritates me:

“It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant,” said DC Entertainment Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee. “After twenty five years, the Watchmen are classic characters whose time has come for new stories to be told. We sought out the best writers and artists in the industry to build on the complex mythology of the original.”

Really?  Hey Dan and Jim, Rorschach isn’t Superman.  He’s not an open-ended character without a complete story who gets reinterpreted over multiple generations to keep him relevant.  We know everything important about him.  His story has a beginning, middle, and end.  He’s a complete creation.  You don’t need to “keep him relevant”, just visible. You’ve done that.  You’ve sold a lot of Watchmen books in the last five years and he’s so interesting people went to the movies to see a so-so interpretation of him.

You know what, though?  I shouldn’t be arguing with their statement.  Why?  Because it’s BS.  Anyone with a brain in their head knows this isn’t the result of a creative impulse.  DC has a bankable property, they don’t need its creators’ permission to use it, and they’re confident they can finally get away with doing this.

I don’t know Brian Azzarello (which might be good because I’d probably annoy the hell out of him) but I have enough respect for him to assume he’s doing this out of a true creative impulse.  But his book wouldn’t be happening at all if not for DC’s desire for a cash grab.

I’m not against said cash grab for moral purposes.  Moore feels DC screwed him on Watchmen and he may be right.  I know they’re not keen on him either.  I’m not interested in reffing a fight between an increasingly bitter man and a bottom-line minded company, even if the man is my favorite writer in any medium.  These things are murkier than many want to acknowledge.

What I’m irritated by is that DC has a lot of momentum right now and a rare chance to grab readers’ attention for almost any project.  They can put great writers and artists to work creating this generation’s Watchmen.  Instead they’re wringing everything they can out of the original.  It runs counter to what they were doing in 1986, when they opened up the potential for sophisticated artistic expression in mainstream comics.

Don’t get me wrong.  I read a lot of DC Comics.  I’m a defender of the New 52 initiative, if not all the individual books.  That’s why I’m so disappointed to see them drop the ball on the follow through.

I won’t be buying these books.  They may turn out to be solid reads but I don’t like what they represent.  I also won’t spend any more time writing or arguing about it online.  Ignoring them is the best way to insure they fade away.  The only exception is if you’re at a book store and you see someone checking out the Watchmen books on the shelf.  We have a responsibility to make sure they know which one is the real thing.

What I’m Reading: The DC Edition

I started 2011 looking to cut down the number of comic series I bought.  Though there were some titles that scored on a regular basis (like Captain America) there were many more not getting the job done.  The slow start to my business in January forced me to make cuts I probably should have made a while ago.  Away went the Bendis Avengers books, which I liked but hadn’t ever really loved, and several DC books that had been at the brink.

The picture at the end of the year is much different.  This is due to several factors, such as my business getting back to normal, the DC relaunch, and several favorite creators jumping into new titles.  I thought it would be fun to go through my current pull list and what I think of each book.

The big news of the year has been DC’s New 52.  For those of you outside the loop, DC Comics relaunched all of their mainstream books, putting them back to #1 with new continuities (mostly).  It might be early to call whether it was a success or not but I think the results have been mostly positive.  I’m reading a LOT more DC now and there’s a new energy going through the line.

I’ll start tonight with those titles and go into the rest tomorrow:

Justice League
I’m really curious how I’ll feel about this book several months from now.  I’m having fun with the way Geoff Johns is writing the characters at the beginning of their careers.  I know their cockiness, especially Green Lantern’s, is a turn off for some but I’m enjoying it.  They’re young, after all, and haven’t been humbled yet.  I also still enjoy Jim Lee’s pencils (if not his costume designs).  The only problem I’m having is the book so far has consisted of heroes fighting monsters as they get introduced at the rate of one or two per issue.  That’s fine but to have staying power, the book has to start building some dramatic meat.

Action Comics
When I read the first issue of this title (the one this year, not 1938), I was over the moon.  It was the return of the Superman I’d wanted for years.  The one that proved he could be more than a Boy Scout.  Here was the “hero of the people” shaking up the forces of the status quo, just like in the original Action Comics #1.  I still felt that way through the second issue.  Now we’re past issue four and it’s stumbling.  I’m hoping Morrison and Morales can find their footing again because I want their take on the character to have a lasting effect.

Batman
I’m enjoying this book though I think some are over-praising it.  The story isn’t Earth-shattering.  It’s simply a solid, basic Batman tale.  The big surprise is Greg Capullo’s art.  I’d only known him as the guy who replaced Todd McFarlane on Spawn.  This has shown he has skills beyond what I’d realized.

Animal Man
I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy this character again.  After Grant Morrison’s triumphant run around twenty years ago (that doesn’t seem possible), one creative team after another tried their take on him and failed.  This one found an angle to make everything new, both for old fans like myself and those approaching Buddy and his family for the first time.  The result is one of the DC relaunch’s surprise successes.

Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE
The first issue of this book is a shining example of how you start a new series.  It mixed high concept science fiction (a miniaturized headquarters drifting in the Earth’s upper atmosphere) with old-fashioned comic book concepts (a team consisting of classic monster agents).  For four issues they’ve been fighting horrific creatures from a monster planet and I’m still having a good time.

Grifter
I’m on the verge of cutting this book.  I’ve loved Grifter since he was first introduced in WildCATs #1.  Something about his attitude and the costume  just worked for me.  That character has yet to show up in this series.  I think the art is top notch and the writing isn’t terrible.  The problem is it’s so by-the-numbers.  It’s got two or three issues left to surprise me.

Batwoman
There’s not much I can say about J.H. Williams III’s art that hasn’t already been said.  It’s always impressive and the writing hasn’t suffered like I thought it might in Greg Rucka’s absence.  This is the DC book you open up to impress people with.

Justice League Dark
So far, so good with this one.  I happen to love the idea of a Justice League team with members like John Constantine and Shade, the Changing Man.  They’ve managed to strike a nice balance of weird, supernatural elements and classic superhero storytelling.

Aquaman
Okay, Geoff Johns, we get it.  Everyone thinks Aquaman is lame but he’s awesome.  You’ve proven the awesome part so let’s just drop the meta-commentary.  Especially since the main story has been solid so far.  It’s nice to know you can still create a fun superhero book.  Unlike…

Green Lantern
Geoff Johns reinvigorated the entire Green Lantern concept when he brought Hal Jordan back.  There’s no questioning that.  For the last several years, though, it’s been treading water.  On the surface, it all sounds good.  Hal Jordan has been kicked out of the Green Lantern Corps and Sinestro has taken his place.  He’s enlisted Jordan to take on the Sinestro Corps he founded.  This should be awesome but I find myself skimming every issue.  This book was on the brink at the beginning of the year and it’s back there again.

Wonder Woman
More than any other book in the relaunch, Wonder Woman feels like it’s building a long-term story.  It’s written by Brian Azzarello, after all, who showed over one-hundred issues of 100 Bullets that he knows how to plant seeds that take years to grow.  I hope he gets that long because in four issues, he’s already creating the most immediate, compelling Wonder Woman story in forever.  On top of this, Cliff Chiang has showed me he’s everything he was hyped to be.  Plus, I love their take on the Greek gods.  They’re strange and terrifying, just like they should be.

Stormwatch
I’d argue that Warren Ellis’ work on Stormwatch and The Authority created a new dynamic that’s effected superhero books from The Ultimates to the new Justice League to even the Marvel movies.  After reading Paul Cornell’s run on Action Comics last year, I thought he’d be the perfect guy to carry the torch.  Instead, he’s dropped it.  It’s not all his fault.  The art looks good in single panels but is a jumbled mess when they’re put together.  In other words, the book is a storytelling failure across the board.  I feel like there’s good stuff under the surface but they can’t quite bring it out.  It is, hands down, the biggest disappointment in the New 52.

The Shade
Picking up where James Robinson’s classic Starman series left off, this book finds the sort-of reformed Golden Age villain getting to the bottom of who wants him dead.  It’s a tough riddle to solve, even given the number of times he’s had to do it before.  Robinson’s superhero stories of the last several years felt phoned-in.  This is the work of an engaged writer creating stories he loves.  More people need to be reading this.

Batman, Inc.
This book is the New 52’s great orphan.  It doesn’t fit in with the new status quo but was so successful it’s still going anyway.  Well, kind of.  We just got a special that collects what would’ve been #8 and #9 of the series, finishing up  “Season 1”.  How will Season 2 fit in with the new continuity?  I don’t care.  It could not fit in at all and not bother me, as long as it keeps up the quality level.  Though the digital issue was a flop, the rest of the series has been a real hoot.  Not all of Morrison’s Batman stories have been a home run but at least there’s real ambition in them.  I’m game for wherever he takes things next.

There was another solid DC book I read last year that was cancelled six issues in.  That book was Xombi.  The tragedy is it would’ve fit in with DC’s new direction.  And like Animal Man, it could’ve found itself an audience who wouldn’t give it a shot under normal conditions.  It’s a lost opportunity and a real shame.