Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Enemies & Allies by Kevin J. Anderson

Kevin J. Anderson is best known for his work writing Star Wars novels. He's quite good at writing widescreen-style epics in prose, so it was disappointing that for his first crack at a novel re-imagining the 1st meeting between Batman and Superman in the 1950's, he chose a kitchen sink approach. In one sentence, a Batman: Year One Batman meets a Superman: The Animated Series Superman to thwart Lex Luthor's attempt at a faux alien invasion to profit on arms sales.

Anderson chose an unusual storytelling structure for this book. Batman and Superman don't interact much. Chapter headings feature each hero's respective logo, allowing for the reader to opt out of reading the novel in order and read it as two separate novellas that only overlap with the last 40 pages or so. The best scenes featured subplots involving our heroes secret identities: Batman/Bruce Wayne has to investigate corporate moles among the Wayne Industries board; Superman/Clark Kent is assigned to investigate Area 51 with Jimmy Olsen, as well as fill-in as an advice columnist for the Daily Planet's romance column. These characters come alive during these passages dwelling on their personal lives and then become cipher-like once they put their costumes. Their costumed antics lacked any spectacle, which is a shame, because the 1950's issues of World's Finest Comics were purely spectacle. You kind of wish Bat-Mite and Mxyzptlk showed up. Instead, we get the world's greatest detective and the man of steel..in an adventure that's too basic to be a page-turner.

I'm not saying those old comics from the 50s were perfect - the scripts, particularly anything written by Edmond Hamilton - always felt cranked out, with no empathy, but the concepts were fantastic. Giant robots, weird monsters, time travel, space creatures and saucermen from Planet X. Apart from invasion/mad scientist stories, every 3rd or 4th story in World's Finest would be about Batman or Superman acting out-of-character, gaining/losing extra powers or adopting disguises to get one over on the other. It was daft, purely created to appeal to young children, but very persuasive. If I hadn't brought a used copy of this novel for a song, I would've considered taking it back to trade it in to cover some of the cost of that spiffy-looking omnibus edition of World's Finest that DC put out..if I hadn't checked it out at the library for free..and if could just casually throw down the bucks for that volume..I need to save up.

So, on the one hand, I don't regret reading Enemies & Allies. I just wish Anderson had eschewed earnestness and embraced the fanciful. It was probably two years too soon for that. Grant Morrison's approach to both characters was just around the corner.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Alan Young, RIP.

Alan Young was still doing voiceover work as Scrooge McDuck for Disney when he was well into his nineties, which is quite an achievement. In cartoon form, his last appearance as Scrooge was in "Goofy's First Love", one of the recent Mickey Mouse cartoons. In videogames, he can be heard in Ducktales Remastered, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep and Ducktales: Scrooge's Loot.

And of course, the original Ducktales TV series and Mickey's Christmas Carol. He was actually the 2nd actor to have played Scrooge (the 1st was Bill Thompson in Scrooge McDuck and Money) and reprised the role in Ducktales after Will Ryan played the tycoon in the TV special Sport Goofy's Soccermania. It's no secret that Alan was not going to be the voice of Donald Duck's wealthy uncle again for the upcoming Ducktales episodes premiering on DisneyXD next year, but whoever the 4th Scrooge will be (possibly Craig Ferguson - my choice), he's got big spats to fill. Young's Scrooge voice was instantly likeable, hearty, feisty. Prior to the show, Scrooge was purely a comic book character whose token appearances in animation were a reminder of Disney characters lives expanded on ancillary tie-in merchandise; afterwards, it felt like he had always been part of the cartoon stable - or an oversight that had finally been corrected. It's become his best-known work - eclipsing his co-lead role in the sitcom Mister Ed - at least where social media is concerned. I'm particularly fond of Darkwing Duck creator Tad Stones' tribute, so it got a prime spot as the headliner for this post.

I'm well aware that Disney still offers Volume 1 of their Ducktales series DVDs at very affordable prices, and the theatrical feature, Ducktales: Treasure of The Lost Lamp, is still available.* If you don't own those videos, I recommend them as a good viewing experience, particularly as a marathon. And if you own any Mister Ed DVDs..sure, give those a spin as well.

Alan Young, RIP.

*Some day, Disney will get around to releasing ALL the remaining episodes of Ducktales on DVD, AND hopefully re-release Volumes 2 & 3 - and Volume 1 is still in circulation as an "Anniversary Edition", yet carries no bonus features?...

Friday, May 20, 2016

Darwyn Cooke, RIP, Cont'd...

I pulled out my copy of Batman: Animated, the coffetable Art History book from 1998 devoted to Batman: The Animated Series, because I remembered it had sample storyboards that Darwyn Cooke worked on for the sequence in "Legends of The Dark Knight" that adapted the battle between Batman and The Mutants leader from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. They do a fantastic job of invoking the suspense and mood of the comic. I really wish the actual direct-to-dvd film adaptation of the book had been animated in this style, not the cranked-out assembly line anime look that's plagued most of the films for the last decade.

I also dug up my copy of Modern Masters Volume Three: Bruce Timm, from Twomorrows Publishing, which contained the passage I had recalled from memory of Bruce Timm's observations on Darwyn's art style. Since my previous post about Cooke was quite packed, I felt like putting these images in a separate post.

Darwyn Cooke, RIP.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Darwyn Cooke, RIP

Within days, we learned that artist Darwyn Cooke had an "aggressive" form of Cancer and was in "palliative care"..and  come Saturday morning, we learn that he passed away. He was only 53 years old.
He first got attention for his work doing storyboards on Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond. In the former, it was the magnificent recreation of  Batman fighting The Mutants gang leader from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns in the episode "Legends of The Dark Knight". For the later series, it was the striking title sequence that opened the show. His first comics work was the graphic novel Batman: Ego for DC Comics, which was followed by a major revamp of Catwoman with writer Ed Brubaker that defined the character for the last decade and a half, including the graphic novel Catwoman: Selena's Big Score.
But wait! There's more! A revival of The Spirit. New Frontier. A series of graphic novels for IDW adapting Richard Stark's "Parker" novels. And lots of variant covers. His art style, at first glance, looked like an offshoot of animator Bruce Timm's style, capitalizing on the popularity of the animated cartoons, but Timm was quick to observe in interviews that when he looked at Darwyn's drawings "...there's a little bit of Frank Robbins, there's some Milt Caniff, a little bit of Sickles.." I would suggest that Cooke's characters tend to look self-aware; they seem to behave like actors that know they're being filmed - lots of expressions with eyes, jaws and teeth. A glance at both artists work in comics reveals that if Timm's characters stick to the script, Cooke's actors are prone to ham things up.
His work as a writer wasn't flawless; I found his scripts could be leaden at times - the dialogue and plots don't necessarily fire on all cylinders and payoffs can come off anti-climactic. His zombie Montez storyline in The Spirit had a climax taken from a short Batman: Black & White tale and went off the reservation, as if he was glad he could find an ending to the arc.
But that's just a minor quibble. Cooke loved heroes that were heroic and liked to tell stories he wanted to read. He could be an outspoken critic of popular dark storylines, like Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis. He despised stories that pretended to be "mature" and "sophisticated" when it was only dragging fictional characters that were once created for children  though the mud. In the last few years, he felt he was typecast as an artist who only dwelled in Silver Age nostalgia and he's not wrong - if he had illustrated Grant Morrison's run on Batman, that definitely daft tenure wouldn't have been so easily discarded. When asked about why he didn't do much work for Marvel Comics  (beyond two issues of a Spider-Man title, a fill-in issue of X-Force and a surreal mini-series starring Wolverine & Doop), he pointed out that he was originally enlisted as the architect for the all-ages "Marvel Adventures" line, before his ideas for creative teams and storylines were completely scuttled by editorial. So he made his name working on DC Comics characters. Not bad.
He was working till the very end, so I wouldn't be surprised if some of the stuff appears posthumously. A comic book variant cover by Cooke on the outside always outclassed the art featured on the inside. When DC had Cooke do variant covers for all their books in 2014 - some featuring characters rendered by him for the first time in print, like He-Man and Skeletor - on the face of things that was a very classy-looking month, but only a few of those books might have had stories people still remember today. They'll remember those covers, though.
Darwyn Cooke, RIP

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

#Top5ComicBooks of 2015 - #3: "All-New Hawkeye" by Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez

I delayed posting this entry on my list of the "Top 5 Comics of 2015" because I wanted to see how the current storyline in All-New Hawkeye was going to wrap. Surprise, surprise..the end of the arc marked the end of the book. Bittersweet, since it's not clear if Hawkeye will ever be the same.

Let me make this perfectly clear: Clint Barton - Hawkeye - is the coolest superhero in current comic books produced right now. Take a good look at what's currently on the stands these days; all the members of the cape and cowl set are serving as pawns of storylines on the whim of their respective writers. Hawkeye, on the other hand, has managed to quietly function within the successful status quo launched by Matt Fraction in 2012. Even though he's purely a fictional character, he has stayed in character, so in a way, he's solid. His adventures have a feel. They matter. He still wears that hearing aid from using a "sonic arrow" back in the Mark Gruenwald mini-series, and he's cool with it. He has no superpowers and resides in a tumbledown apartment building, but it's his home. He's got that smart cool dog that likes pizza. He's even cool with letting his protege Kate share his superhero moniker rather than diminish it with "Hawkette" or "Lady Hawkeye". His brother stole his fortune in cash, but he was willing to turn the other cheek after learning that the bum had turned fairy godfather/boyfriend to a harried single mother living in Clint's building, wisking her family with him to a newly-bought island haven. Spider-Man would bitch and moan about these "indignities" to no end; Clint took them on the chin and looked all the more heroic for it. He moves forward.

And if the future foretell a new status quo that pulls him away from what felt like a cozy haven from the noise of mainstream superhero funnybooks, then it did its part.

I actually liked Lemire's run better than the Fraction's. True, one era couldn't have occurred without the other, but I never liked the Track Suit Mob or The Clown much. What I did enjoy was everything else. All-New Hawkeye gives us more of the everything else while building up the iconography of Clint Barton and Kate Bishop by digging into their respective pasts with the three arcs that comprise all 11 issues of the series. Wunderkammer, the longest installment, sets up the main adventure about the rescue of three genetically modified children with distructive psychokinetic powers wanted by S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra while elaborating on Clint's childhood with his brother Barney as they were taken under the wing of their mentor, The Swordsman. The Bishop's Man documents a possible future in which both Hawkeyes are still plagued with guilt about their failure to save these kids - Clint never really moved on, while Kate became preoccupied with getting her house in other, both leading colorful, but empty existences. The final arc, Hawkeyes, depicts the rescue mission, the fate of the three kids and flashbacks to Kate's childhood, raised by her shady tycoon father, who will likely be the main adversary of the Hawkeyes in a future arc.

We also get the return of Barney Barton, Clint's brother. I like this character and his bizzaro evolution along the periphery of the Marvel Universe: he began as Clint's foil, a ne'r do well older brother who morphed into a teetotaler secret agent, then morphed into supervillain Trickshot before reverting back into a ne'r do well who loved freeloading and playing crossword puzzles and ultimately stealing his brother's fortune...for a good cause...well, it worked out that way - he did help with the assault on Clint's building by all those gangsters.

The letter page in the last issue hinted that "big things" were in store...I'm not sure what they could be...maybe Clint marries Kate and buys a farmhouse...it's comics. Even though this is emphatically not the same Hawkeye depicted in film and cartoons, his is not entirely dissimilar in characterization...perhaps less inspired then the Clint of these recent comics. And definitely not as cool. If you have never read this series, I do recommend that you give it try.