Monday, November 30, 2009

Bat-Month: Turning off the signal

Bum bum bum BUMMMM...bummmmm.Well, that appears to be the end of a belfry-sized Bat-Month. There were an awful lot of things that I would have liked to have done and didn't get around to, due to various factors--as usual. At the very least, I have a wealth of ideas for future posts, both for now and for any Bat-months in the future. Some Bat-leftovers will likely be getting posted in the coming weeks, popping out of the shadows when you least expect it.

I hope you enjoyed this journey through Gotham as much as I did, and I hope you're looking forward to one more theme month before the end of the year...

Bat-Month: "The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy"

More a caper than a conspiracy.Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: "The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy" is not a good "Batman: TAS" episode. It's a terrible mishmash of different concepts, none of which really work together, and the plot not only makes very little sense, but comes off making Batman look like an inefficient jerk, while everyone else just looks like an idiot.

I think the biggest problem with the episode is also the reason I decided to review it rather than some more deserving Animated episodes. The plot centers around a villainous scheme to steal Batman's cowl, much like "The Contaminated Cowl." Such a scheme, you'd think, would be a ploy to expose Batman's secret identity, or a manifestation of the Mad Hatter's twisted obsession, but it's neither of those things. But what is clear to me from watching the episode is that this idea--a criminal trying to steal Batman's mask--was the core concept around which the rest of the episode was based.

Sometimes that kind of plot-anchoring concept can work, other times, not so much. Remember when I talked about the various deathtraps in "Almost Got 'Im"? When I said that any plot designed to lead up to such a trap would almost inevitably be silly and disappointing? "The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy" is proof of that.

He even looks like the Riddler.Take, for instance, the villain of the story, Josiah Wormwood. He's called "The Interrogator," because he's a master of torturing information from his victims with elaborate death-traps. How does he lure victims into these traps? Why, by leaving them clues in the form of rhyming riddles.

Which brings us to our very first problem: Wormwood is a cheap knock-off of the Riddler, who had yet to appear in the series. He uses his riddles and a quicksand trap to catch a diplomatic courier, in order to extract the location of a large cache of bearer bonds.

The theft brings him under police scrutiny, which naturally gets Batman involved. Batman goes after Baron Wacklaw Jozek, one of Wormwood's associates, hoping to find out Wormwood's whereabouts. To this end, Batman abducts the Baron from a society dinner, where he has just started giving a speech, in front of dozens of high-class patrons. I can understand the need for speed and the desire to publicly embarass Jozek, but it seems like it would have been in Batman's best interests to pick up Jozek in a slightly less public venue. He dangles Jozek by the suspenders from a billboard until Batman gets the information he needs.

It's Batman's Glamour Shot!Shortly thereafter, the Baron calls in Wormwood to offer him a job: steal Batman's cape and cowl. He does this with a poster-sized portrait of Batman, which opens up vast new questions. Wormwood is curious as to the Baron's reasons, so Jozek offers a trade: he'll explain why he wants the cape and cowl if Wormwood tells him about the bearer bonds.

At this point, any mildly intelligent criminal would have been searching Jozek for the wire that he's clearly wearing, but instead Josiah plays coy and agrees to the job. His first attempt to catch Batman--involving an amusement park and a woman tied to train tracks--failed miserably to produce any new headgear. Consequently, he lured Batman to a wax museum--which at this point I believe are frequented more by supervillains than by patrons--where he assaulted him with a hot lamp (to melt the wax, you see) and then some deadly nerve gas. Finally, Batman removed his cape and cowl to give them to Wormwood.

Now, here's a scene that should have been tense and suspenseful. Batman's in the shadows, having removed his mask, and Wormwood is forcing him to step into a spotlight to deposit it! How will he protect his secret identity? As he stepped into the light, the viewer would have seen the unexpected--Batman's wearing another mask underneath! Unfortunately, all that suspense was spoiled long before Batman reached the spotlight, thanks to this image:
Oh hey, it's Bloodsport!

Even before Batman reaches the spotlight, it's trivially obvious that he's wearing another mask. A scene that might have brought this episode up from bad to mediocre and memorable, thanks to a stunning example of Batman's foresight, was robbed of all drama by this poor direction, lighting Batman just enough to see the trick.

Wormwood takes the prize back to Jozek, asking again why he wanted them. Jozek reminds him of the quid pro quo agreement, so Wormwood spills the bearer bond beans. Jozek then reveals his reason for wanting the cape and cowl: to wear them! Because he's Batman in disguise!

Naturally, the place was bugged, and Jozek had fled the country after his run-in with Batman. So the police got Wormwood's confession, and after a too-long fistfight, Wormwood got apprehended.

Unfortunately, this episode spectacularly fails the fridge logic test. If the information about these bearer bonds were so important, why waste so much time setting up this overly elaborate cape-and-cowl scheme? If Batman were behind the plan the whole time, why did he defeat Wormwood's first deathtrap? If Wormwood is so intelligent, why didn't he realize that he was being bugged? If Batman knew he was going to get Wormwood to confess--on tape!--then why didn't he have any police standing by, rather than letting Wormwood fight him through the penthouse and its rec center?

But the real nail in the coffin for this episode, as far as I'm concerned, is the thematic one. You have a villain who is expressly said to torture people with deathtraps in order to get information from them, a villain known as "the Interrogator." You have the Batman, who routinely--including in the first act of this very story--puts criminals and informants into potentially life-threatening circumstances in order to make them confess or otherwise give up their information. The thematically satisfying plot would be to have Batman out-interrogate the Interrogator, to pit his own deathtraps against him, and to ultimately turn all of his careful plans back in against him. This doesn't happen--despite being wildly foreshadowed--instead proffering a silly plot about stealing Batman's mask.

Not only does this insanely circuitous plan make Batman look like he's just toying with both his enemies and the police, but his abduction of Jozek and the way he casually belittles Commissioner Gordon when they're examining Wormwood's riddles ("of course! Isn't it obvious?") makes him come across as a bit of a dick.

Overall, "The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy" is a less-than-mediocre episode hampered by its generic, cobbled-together villain. It suffers worse from comparison to better episodes in the same season, featuring the villains who The Interrogator evokes.

Bat-Month: "The Contaminated Cowl"/"The Mad Hatter Runs Afoul"

Consider this part of a trilogy of Bat-Month reviews. I'm breaking from the pattern of looking at early episodes of "Batman"--and specifically villains' first appearances--to take a look at one of the very few episodes of the series that I remember in detail from my childhood. "The Contaminated Cowl"/"The Mad Hatter Runs Afoul" is the Mad Hatter's second outing, from the show's second year. I remember even as a kid thinking it odd that Batman's cowl would turn bright pink when irradiated (after all, aren't radioactive things green and glowing?), and I no longer remember what led up to that particular plot point, except that the Mad Hatter wanted Batman's mask for his hat collection.

As it happens, the only other big plot points I recall from watching the series over a decade ago are Batman playing matador against a bull1, Batman and Robin being strapped to a giant grill by Catwoman2, and the wall-scaling scene where they meet Green Hornet and Kato.

So it'll be interesting to actually see how this story plays out. It opens, strangely enough, with David Wayne's mustachioed Mad Hatter entering Bon-Bon's Box Boutique to buy 700 empty hatboxes. I expect to see all this referenced in an upcoming Grant Morrison story.

Go-Go Gadget Hat-Eyes!Naturally, the Hatter's hat opens to reveal mechanical mesmerizing eyes, which he uses to knock out the shop owner so that he can freely abscond with the...empty boxes.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne presents a Professor with a check for his research with the Gotham City Atomic Energy Laboratories. The meeting is interrupted by a call on the Batphone. Bruce is a little incredulous at the report of 700 hatboxes being stolen from Bon-Bon's Box Boutique. Surprisingly enough, Gotham's finest actually know who the culprit is this time, and note that the Hatter escaped from the prison during a softball game. Will Warden Crichton never learn?

Batman and Robin have a largely uneventful and unhelpful meeting with Gordon and O'Hara, then leave for the Batcave to do some pondering. After their departure, Commissioner Gordon becomes surprisingly self-aware:
Gordon: Looking back, Chief O'Hara, it's hard to remember how we operated at all before those two masked samaritans appeared on the scene.
O'Hara: It's not hard for me to remember, Commissioner: things were a mess!
I'll bet they were, Chief O'Hara. How many crimes went unsolved while Gotham cops fruitlessly contemplated the difference between their posteriors and holes in the ground?

The Mad Hatter is packing up his hat collection, musing over the crazy adventures that led to these trophies. He talks a bit about the cap stolen from a British Royal Guard, mentioning that the King ordered his execution. Sometimes, since Elizabeth II has been queen longer than I (or my parents, for that matter) have been alive, I forget that there was a King in the relatively recent past.

The Hatter has decided to box his hats because stealing them has lost its luster. Of course, this doesn't mean he's going straight--after all, he still hasn't stolen Batman's cowl--but he's also going to change his modus operandi, using hats to steal instead. His assistant, Polly, doesn't understand what that means, but the Hatter isn't going to explain it very well. Somehow it involves a headdress ball, a ruby, a spray-gun full of radioactive material, and a water tower are involved. This is going to be the most complicated game of Clue ever.

Batman discusses the Headdress Ball with Robin, noting that it's being held by Hattie Hatfield, owner of the Hatfield Ruby, which will be held in her headdress. Presumably, this is all happening at the Hatfield Hilton in the Hat district, and it's being held as a charity benefit fer Dora.

Oh, it's in the Top Hat Room? I never would have guessed. The Hatter is planning on infiltrating the Headdress Ball as some sort of fez-wearing foreign military leader. In the meantime, Batman and Robin climb up the sheer glass wall, and Batman dryly remarks that "people in glass hotels shouldn't throw parties." Oh Batman, you card.

At the party, Hatter's assistant is working the hat check table, which firstly seems unnecessary at a party devoted to the wearing of hats, and secondly makes one wonder, if Hatter could get one mole into the party, why he needed the Pasha disguise at all. I guess it allows him to get closer to the ruby he's trying to steal.

Batman and Robin enter through the window, spot the Mad Hatter, and decide to sneak around for a closer look. Despite not being concealed by anything at all, and despite wearing their gaudy costumes, Batman is certain that they'll be unnoticed.

I am the klutz who knocks things over in the night...He then promptly bumps into a serving cart. Ladies and gentlemen, the Dark Knight.

All the servers acknowledge Batman and Robin's presence, but remain quiet about it. I can't help but wonder if Batman has formed a branch of Project Mayhem in Gotham, full of civilians who are secretly loyal to the Bat. Or perhaps it's more like the Shadow's organization. Or maybe Batman just tips really well.

Oh, nevermind, they're also working for Mad Hatter. Again, with this kind of penetration into the party, why bother with the masquerade? Hatter has more than enough henchmen here to cow the high society types into compliance, and he has a hat that can hypnotize people! This isn't even a "why doesn't the Joker just shoot Batman" kind of question, really, it's a "why isn't the supervillain making use of his considerable supervillain resources in a typically supervillainous way" question.

Oh well, it leads to a fight where henchmen get pied.
What kind of high society function serves cream pies?

I mean, I appreciate good slapstick as much as anyone, but this stretches disbelief.

So, that's cool. Anyway, the Mad Hatter tosses his fez, which releases some kind of gas. He also reveals the dire consequences of a life of hat-related villainy: terrible hat hair.
How do you get hat hair from a fez anyway?

The smoking fez gives him the perfect opportunity to whip out his perfume atomizer full of radioactive spray, which he uses to mace Batman's cowl. Hatter beats a hasty retreat, and Batman's mask becomes almost neon pink, something which wouldn't happen again until the "Batman Forever" toyline.
Still less ridiculous than rubber nipples.

Batman explains that the color change is due to a form of virulent radiation; I'm just curious why it didn't affect any of the rest of his costume. That's some well-targeted spray. He suggests heading back to the Batcave "before it is too late," which I imagine means "before I get face cancer."

Back at the Batcave, Alfred informs him that all the other cowls are in the "Home Dry Bat Cleaning Plant," if I heard that right, and won't be ready for at least a couple of hours. Naturally, then, Batman continues to wear his radioactive cowl. Oh no, the face cancer has metastasized to his brain, it's too late.

Actually, he's just confident that the anti-radiation bat-pill he took will last him at least a little longer. While you add that to the list of technology that Bruce Wayne is maliciously withholding from the world at large, you may also consider that it'd still be a good idea to take the mask off. This is the equivalent of repeatedly shooting yourself in the chest because you're confident that your bulletproof vest can take a little more punishment.

Batman needs a cowl so he can catch the Mad Hatter, so he instructs Alfred to turn the cleaner from "full maximum" to "super instant," which I assume is the dryer equivalent of "it goes to eleven." Were this a sitcom, I'd expect the cowls to come out tiny-sized, while suds slowly fill the Batcave.

Batman decides that he should put in a call--as Bruce Wayne--to the scientist he funded earlier in the story. Incidentally, for all the incredible technology in the Batcave, from anti-radiation pills to a dry cleaner, one thing he doesn't have is a touch-tone phone. Batman rotary dials the Atomic Energy Laboratory, and one spinning logo later, Batman is at the building for decontamination. Professor Overbeck is pessimistic about the possibility of cleaning the cowl. He offers this stunning explanation about the state of nuclear physics in 1967, in a thick nonspecific European accent of course:
Professor Overbeck: So little is known about this radioactivity of radioactive agents. So little is known that we only know one thing: that eventually, they are deadly.
I could spend days talking about what's wrong with that statement. Suffice it to say that I think the Wayne Foundation is seriously wasting its money.

Batman fears that the effects of the anti-radiation pill are wearing off, but thankfully the Professor's assistant--actually, the Mad Hatter in a radiation suit, who has knocked out the real assistant--has brought a spare suit and apparently a lead hatbox for the Dark Knight. Knowing that he wouldn't want to reveal his secret identity, the professor has helpfully set up a changing screen. As Batman goes to change, Robin asks if he needs any help.

...No comment.

Batman hands over the radioactive mask, which the Hatter gladly steals.
This kind of makes me want to see a Batman-themed Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.

Robin tries to stop him, but is foiled by a single kick to the shin. I'd criticize the Boy Wonder's apparent wussiness, but I guess he hasn't yet thought to armor-plate his pantyhose.

Batman comes skipping out from behind the changing screen, wearing another cowl.
I assume this is Bat-skipping.

He and Robin chase after the Hatter, and find him, with his henchmen, having declared a rather premature victory. Seriously, one of the henchmen says that this is the end of crimefighting in Gotham City, which means that apparently none of them think it's possible that Batman would have more than one costume--or the ability to make another mask.

Hatter thinks that it must be a trick, that this can't be Batman. Perhaps his hat's on a little too tight; a man who owns hundreds of kinds of hats is surprised that another man would own two?

And yet, for some reason, Robin still tries to retrieve the cowl. Dude, let it go. Not only is it the only superhero mask in history that is likely to make you sterile and give you cancer, but it can't be all that expensive. If owning Batman's pink carcinogenic cowl is enough to cause the Mad Hatter to give up his criminal ways, then let the dude have it.

But instead, Batman warns Robin that the cowl is contaminated, and the thugs attack. Quickly overpowering the Duo, Hatter's henchmen trap them in a high-voltage X-Ray chamber, with doors that only push in from the outside. This seems like a rather serious design flaw; I hope Bruce Wayne puts a stop on that check to the Atomic Energy Laboratory. I also hope he thought to bring extra anti-radiation capsules.

I never thought I'd be so happy to see someone knocked unconscious.Professor Overbeck, whose fake accent makes him very hard to understand, says something about how Batman and Robin will be "X-Rayed forever" and irradiated in a matter of seconds. Again, the Professor's understanding of radiation is sorely lacking. Thankfully, the Hatter zaps him with his knockout hat and leaves Batman and Robin to their radioactive fate. All because they couldn't just let him keep the cancer-mask.
They really should have listened to Willy Wonka's warning, now they're going to have to go to the taffy room.

Interestingly, the second episode's introductory recap is a lot more cursory than those in the first few episodes. We get a shot of Batman and Robin in the fluoroscope cabinet and an explanation of what this trap signifies, but nothing about what led up to that point, while the recaps for the previously-reviewed episodes gave us a series of shots from throughout the show and dramatic descriptions of what went on. This is less time-consuming, sure, but I wonder what prompted it.

After the theme song, we're treated to this interesting sight:
Batman: The Donner Cut.

I find it strangely significant that Batman and Robin's underwear is more resistant to radioactive bombardment than either their tights or their flesh. Also, I'm reminded of the cover to Superman #66.

The Hatter returns to the scene of the crime, where Polly, his top-hatted henchgirl, is shocked by the sight of the Bat-skeletons. She thinks Hatter has gone too far this time, which I'm sure won't come back to bite him in the butt later on. The Hatter is convinced of the Dynamic Duo's demise, so he thinks the rest of his caper will be a picnic.
Polly: A picnic? At a time like this?
A henchman points out that Hatter could have picked up another cowl from the Bat-corpse, but he feels that the one he tricked Batman out of earlier would suffice.

Commissioner Gordon gets the fateful phone call, and claims that he refuses to believe it, but has an emotional breakdown as he relays the news to Chief O'Hara.
Who will do our jobs now?

At the White House, an old timey phone operator is shocked to hear the news, and implies that the President will fly to Gotham City as soon as he hears. The same scene plays out in London and Moscow before we return to the Atomic Energy Laboratory, where a very much alive Batman and Robin thank Professor Overbeck for his assistance. See, Batman had a Bat-X-Ray Deflector in his utility belt.
Hey Batman, I think NASA might be interested in that.

He also happened to be wearing another cowl under his contaminated one, and had an entire spare costume in the Batmobile, which they draped across a couple of Professor Overbeck's display skeletons.

At the Mad Hatter's hideout, he comments that Batman and Robin were clever to put a tracking device in the contaminated cowl, but he found it and placed it in a water tower. Apparently he's not quite as confident in their deaths as he seemed. Polly is surprised by his inconsistent tactics--why hide the tracker if Batman and Robin are dead?
Polly: Jervis, you sound like the Joker or the Puzzler, or even the Riddler!
Jervis figures that the discovery of Batman and Robin's bodies will involve the police, and he doesn't want there to be anything which leads to him until after he finishes his plan, which has something to do with replacing the ruby in a Buddha's forehead with the cheap replica he stole from Hattie Hatfield's headdress.

Hatter's henchmen rush in to tell the boss that the whole town is shutting down, due to the discovery of Batman and Robin's deaths. "The whole town's at half-mast." Once again, this provokes some trepidation from Polly, and I think the Hatter's response is quite entertaining:
Mad Hatter: Now don't go soft on me, Polly! Who made Batman and Robin famous crimefighters? Criminals, that's who! If you want to show a little respect to the departed, stay crooked! It's the least you could do!
Now that's persuasive.

Back at Wayne Manor, Aunt Harriet muses about how communities come together during times of tragedy. Alfred is wearing a black armband of mourning, and Bruce and Dick are...standing around looking awkward. A large crowd has gathered outside the mansion, knowing that Batman was friends with Bruce Wayne. Bruce tries obliquely to convince Harriet that Batman and Robin are still alive, but she won't have any of it. She talked to Professor Overbeck himself, and he wouldn't lie, right? Eventually, we're led to this:
Bruce: Dick, um, perhaps you and I should have a moment alone in my study.
Dick: I think so, Bruce.
Aunt Harriet: Oh, that's a beautiful way for you to express your respects.
Holy gaydar, Batman!

In the study, Bruce dramatically picks up the Bat-Phone. On the other end, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara are staring out at a crowd of thousands of mourners, when the phone rings. O'Hara suspects a Twilight Zone-esque call from beyond the grave, but Gordon knows they aren't buried yet. A call from the fluoroscopic cabinet then, I guess. They answer the phone, and receive the obvious Mark Twain quote from the Caped Crusader. He explains that he and Robin are "about to nail the Mad Hatter,"3 which prompts this response:
Commissioner Gordon: The Mad Hatter? At a time like this, who cares about that pipsqueak's inconsequential crimes?
Yes, that's right, the GCPD officially stops caring about crime just as soon as they learn of a vigilante's resurrection. Ladies and gentlemen, your Gotham City Police Commissioner.

After Bruce gives Commissioner Gordon a brief lecture on law enforcement and the social contract, he and Dick head to the Bat-Poles.

While Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara rush to call the President, the Mad Hatter is out to steal the ruby, which he does with little fanfare. Unfortunately, Polly rushes up to spoil the mood.
Polly: I was down at the hat-check stand, checking no hats, and guess what I heard: Batman and Robin are alive!
The Hatter is understandably annoyed, but he needn't worry: Batman and Robin are just chilling in the Batcave, apparently trying to puzzle out what to do next.

Excedrin Headache #193: Preposterous Supervillainy.
Batman: Mad Hatter has to be someplace with that contaminated cowl. Ergo...

Robin: Ergo.

Batman: Ergo, the small bug I tucked in the cowl has to be someplace too.
That's some nice deductive logic, there, Batman, but I'm not sure it's helping. Especially since Robin's expression (and tone of voice) and Batman's weary rubbing at his eyes suggests that they've been over this same line of reasoning multiple times. This little bit is one of those great, subtle character moments that I think get overlooked in general assessments of the show.

There's a beeping on...something, but it's clearly from the bug, and it appears to be underwater. After a quick jaunt to the Bat-Computer, they locate the bug at a water tower behind an abandoned Green Derby restaurant. About that time, Commissioner Gordon calls with news of the ruby swap. It seems like they noticed the exchanged jewels abnormally quickly; I wonder how they realized it wasn't the real thing--or that they even needed to check. I guess it's to speed the plot along, really.

Batman and Robin arrive at the Green Derby, where they encounter Polly, who plays naïve about the Mad Hatter. Her terrible lying is exposed when Batman sees the radioactive cowl lying on the floor--and when they see Hatter and his crew climbing up to the water tower out back. Batman explains that Hatter's exposure to the lethal radioactive elements in the cowl means he needs immediate medical attention, which is pretty magnanimous on his part. It'd be more magnanimous if he'd mass-produced his anti-radiation pills, but I'll take my victories where I can get them.

For some reason, Batman and Robin allow Polly to lead the way to the water tower, which seems a little stupid on their parts. Speaking of parts, I'm seeing just a little more of Adam West than I'm comfortable with.
There are two towers in this image.

Batman and Robin ascend the ladder, but Hatter is confident that he'll just whammy them with the mesmerizing device in his hat...which promptly blows away. I think I finally understand the fatal flaw underlying the Mad Hatter's weaponry.

Plan B seems to be to assemble the rest of the gang on the walkway, allowing them to attack in a handy, one-at-a-time fashion.
In hindsight, this was a poor arena.

The fight is pretty slick; in fact, you might suspect that it was done with Teflon, or perhaps some kind of spray-on agent...

Yeah, that's the stuff. Thanks, ridiculous sound effect!

The fight's pretty cool, and I suspect that by this point in the second season they were looking for ways to spice up the usual warehouse-battle scenes. Consequently, there are some neat places where Batman's getting strangled while dangling partway off the walkway and such, until the police show up. Hatter climbs further up the water tower ladder, to no apparent benefit. Weren't they adapting this into a deathtrap of some sort in the previous installment? Whatever happened to that plot point?

The Dynamic Duo decide to leave the whole arresting bit to the police, and start to leave, pausing only a moment to wave at the rapidly-assembled multitudes of people cheering their apparent resurrection.

They'll go to great lengths to explain what Batman's laundry situation is, but not one word is said about what the hell is going on here.Back at the Manor, Aunt Harriet opens up her thesaurus to ask a pointed question of Bruce and Dick, who appear to be examining a seahorse on a stick:
Aunt Harriet: How did you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Batman and Robin were alive, when the whole world thought they were dead?

Bruce: Yes, well I,

Aunt Harriet: Or you, Dick. You were equally emphatic.

Dick: Well, Aunt Harriet, you see, I uh...I...
Alfred suggests that it's time that they tell the truth, then effortlessly spins a tale about an easily-confused friend whose husband works at the Atomic Energy Laboratory.

The episode ends, then, with Aunt Harriet's uncritical acceptance of this story, and a sappy note about how Batman and Robin must now know how much the world loves them. Yay!

Overall, it wasn't as bad as I expected. There are some strange plot holes and dropped threads, and the pacing feels really weird, but those are relatively heady criticisms of a story that I expected to be utter crap. I guess the biggest problem was with the whole "Batman and Robin are dead" subplot, which largely occurred around the periphery of the story and never had much direct effect on the story itself. Such a monumental event deserves a little more attention, both from the story and from the characters involved. So, altogether this wasn't quite the caliber of episode that I've come to expect from those early installments, but it still managed some good character work and jokes, and had the thread of a good idea running through it.

Bonus: Hey, Batman Sound Effects, who's your favorite character from "Death of a Salesman"?
Alternately, who's your favorite member of the Tannen family?

1. He successfully uses his blue cape to lure it, while noting (fairly accurately) that it's the cape's motion, not the color red, which entices them, because bulls are color-blind. They're technically red-green color blind, but I'll give Batman a "close enough."

2.Prompting this excellently punny exchange:
Robin: Holy oleo!
Catwoman:: I didn't know you could yodel.

3. Stop laughing!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bat-Month: "Mad as a Hatter"

That is an awesome title card.Oh, hey, it's a Batman: TAS episode about date rape!

Which, I guess, is better for the Mad Hatter than various comic insinuations that he's a pedophile or a...chapeauphile.

I really enjoy this version of the Mad Hatter, and I think Roddy McDowall made the perfect voice actor for the character. Sure, I'm a fan of Gail Simone's deranged version in "Secret Six," but I think the "diminutive bizarrely perverted mind-controlling supervillain niche" is already filled by Dr. Psycho. Jeph Loeb's version has never made much sense to me, partnered with the Scarecrow as the two personality-free villains who constantly talk in verse and quotations. At least the quotes make some sense for Hatter; that version of Scarecrow is just weird.

The problem with most of those versions is twofold: first, Gotham City, for whatever reason, is teeming with insane criminals patterned after Alice in Wonderland characters--Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Wonderland Gang, Humpty Dumpty, and now the White Queen--so it's easy to strip Jervis of the traits which make him stand out as an individual. Second, the foremost of those individual traits is that he has various devices which allow him to control people's minds, and when you turn him into someone so insane that he can no longer speak except in Carroll quotations, then you make him seem like someone who could never have developed such technology.

So the Animated Series, as it so often does, strikes a balance: Jervis Tetch is a nerdy scientist, and Alice in Wonderland is his favorite story (so he quotes it occasionally) and has mind control cards which are connected to a headband. He conceals the latter in a hat and, for flair, puts the Hatter's fractions on the cards. And then he woos a co-worker named Alice by mind-controlling everyone they come in contact with, providing the perfect date.

And the date actually is pretty thoughtful. Sure, it's clearly a "perfect date" concept that has been rattling around in Tetch's mind for a long time--dinner at a fancy restaurant with VIP treatment, an after-hours trip to an amusement park (with an Alice in Wonderland-themed exhibit), and even a dance. There's always the sinister undercurrent--the mind-control cards in everyone's hats or hair, illustrating the lengths to which Tetch has gone to ensure that nothing goes wrong. Knowing that Tetch is the kind of person who would even consider mental enslavement as an acceptable alternative to mild embarrassment paints him as somewhat unhinged, but he's clearly not malicious or harmful...yet.

But this kind of personality is teetering on the edge of violence, and when Jervis finds out that Alice has forgiven her boyfriend--and accepted a marriage proposal--he goes a little over the edge.

And so the situation escalates until Batman is fighting a mind-controlled army of Carroll-inspired thugs in the Storybook Land Amusement Park, while Alice sits as a glassy-eyed puppet through the whole battle.

The episode ends, fittingly enough, with the Hatter trapped under a fallen Jabberwock sculpture, while Alice is happily reunited with her fiancé. The reunion bit wasn't entirely necessary--Alice and Billy weren't particularly three-dimensional characters--but it's a nice moment, made all the more symbolic by the fact that their happily ever after rescue happens in the Storybook Land park.

In any case, this is probably the best episode about the Mad Hatter. It does for Jervis what the Animated Series tended to do so well, providing villains with sympathetic backstories and moderately comprehensible motivations. It's not the best episode to feature Hatter, however, and I'll see about getting to that one in the near future.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bat-Month: "Vendetta"

That's a nice looking title card.In looking at my Batman: The Animated Series DVDs for episodes to review, I've found it interesting what my initial judgments are upon reading the titles. For a lot of the episodes, I think "Oh man, that's a great episode"--"Almost Got 'Im," "Heart of Ice," and so forth. For a few, I think, "jeez, that was a bad episode"--"Christmas With the Joker," "Heart of Steel," etc. And then there are some that make me scratch my head and wrack my brain to remember what the heck they were about. "Vendetta" was one of those episodes, so I decided to cure my curiosity--plus, it's on the same disc as "The Clock King."

As it turns out, "Vendetta" is the introductory episode for Killer Croc. It's interesting, in that the plot turns mostly on the sorts of plot devices you'd find in a police procedural, not a children's cartoon. At the beginning of the story, a convict is getting paroled early for agreeing to testify against Rupert Thorne. Unfortunately, the boat he's traveling on is bombed, and he appears to have died--leading to the only use of the phrase "draggin' the bay" (as in, to search for a body) I know of in children's television. Gordon takes Bullock off the case, in order to prevent conflict with Internal Affairs, since in the past Bullock was accused of working with Thorne. Ultimately, someone frames Harvey for the crime, as well as the kidnapping of Joey the Snail.

I was frankly a little shocked to see terms like "Internal Affairs" get tossed around in a cartoon, especially without any explanation.

Anyway, Batman's role in this is mainly to investigate around the periphery of the plot's main events. At first, the evidence seems to implicate Bullock, and Batman is perhaps a little to eager to accuse the police force's biggest Bat-detractor. Eventually, though, Batman finds a scaly bit of flesh at one of the crime scenes, and--thanks to Alfred's fortuitous discussion of cookware--deduced that it might be from a "croc." Bruce then goes to the zoo, where a helpful recording outside the crocodile enclosure explains that crocodiles live in underwater caves.

Seriously. Batman goes to the zoo. To do research. On crocodile habitats. Unless the zoo is next door to Wayne Manor, I can think of about ten different ways that he could have done that research more quickly and efficiently, and thus less ridiculously. Are you telling me that nowhere in stately Wayne Manor is there an encyclopedia? The Bat-computer database doesn't contain anything from Zoobooks?

Naturally, Batman rescues the criminals, gets beat up a bit by Killer Croc, and eventually clears Bullock's name. The episode is not bad, and surprisingly enough the worst bits in it are the ones with Batman and Croc doing superhero/supervillain stuff. Croc's self-exposition is painful at best, and Batman goes to the zoo. The police procedural parts are great, though, and Bullock really shines.

The other really surprising aspect of the story is how intelligent Croc seems. While the series sometimes plays the character for comic relief, the Croc-centric episodes (this and especially "Sideshow") show him to be a relatively bright guy. Here, he's successfully able to impersonate and frame Harvey Bullock, which is not the easiest thing for a giant reptile-man to do.

It's not one of the greatest episodes of the series, and it has some silly moments, but overall "Vendetta" is a pretty good story. I don't think I'll be forgetting it again anytime soon.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bat-Month: "Almost Got 'Im"

Almost got this picture uploaded when I first published the post.This probably isn't a controversial statement, but I think "Almost Got 'Im" is the perfect Batman story. Forget "Year One," forget "Dark Knight Returns," even forget "The Dark Knight"--"Almost Got 'Im" is pure Batman, distilled down to the basic elemental components.

If you've never seen the episode, please stop reading this and go find it. I'm sure it's on YouTube or Hulu if you don't happen to own the entire Animated Series on DVD (in which case, I think that's grounds to take away your comic fan license--for shame!).

Anyway, the episode plays out as a series of vignettes told by Batman's rogues around a poker table in a seedy bar. The beauty of this setup is that it cuts right to the chase--Batman escaping from insane deathtraps--without trying to justify those deathtraps or those dire circumstances by building a whole plot around them. We don't have to know how Two-Face got Batman tied up to a giant penny on a giant penny-flipping device, and I think any story they tried to tell which led to that scenario would be disappointingly ridiculous. Instead, we get to see Batman pacify Poison Ivy's perilous pumpkin patch, survive the Penguin's Aviary of Doom, and earn the Batcave's second-most-famous prop. And of course, there's Croc's deathtrap, which while hilariously apt, is also probably the most likely to work.

Yeah, you know the scene I'm talking about.If the episode had just been Bat-villains sitting around and sharing war stories, it might have been entertaining, but it wouldn't have been great. What catapults this episode up to the legendary level is when the framing story takes over as the main plot, and there's that incredible, unforgettable reveal. That twist--and the one that follows it--present us with everything we need to know about Batman: master of disguise, world's greatest detective, and prepared for absolutely everything. This is Chessmaster Batman, achieved so perfectly and effortlessly by the Animated series staff.

And then Batman saves the day again, leaving us with just a taste of the Batman/Catwoman romance, and the perfect end to a perfect episode.

I'd worry about overhyping this story, about raising your expectations so high that they couldn't possibly be fulfilled, and that's certainly possible. It's also possible that you could watch ten seconds of this episode for one screen capture, having seen it dozens of times before, and still be unable to control the wide grin and giddily triumphant giggle at seeing Batman be Batman. I'll let you guess which camp I'm in.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bat-Month: "On Leather Wings"

Fun Fact: Joel Schumacher's sequel to this episode was called 'On Rubber Nipples.'I watched the first-produced, second-aired episode of Batman: The Animated Series again recently, for the first time in quite awhile. I actually remember watching the episode--and, for that matter, "The Cat and the Claw" before it--when it first aired. Right off the bat--no pun intended--the main pieces are present: the jarring shifts between Batman and Bruce Wayne, the mesh of detective work and sci-fi superheroics, the jovially antagonistic relationship between Bruce and Alfred (even if Alfred does sound really weird in the pre-Efram Zimbalist days), Harvey Bullock's distrust of Batman--even Harvey Dent as the District Attorney and the first taste of the animal transformations that would become something of a motif for the series.

The story is a relatively simple one, and honestly a somewhat strange choice for a first episode. Man-Bat is a fairly minor villain, and only shows up once more in the series' entire run, as I recall. On the other hand, what this episode lacks in intricate plot and iconic battles, it makes up for by giving us a very well-rounded introduction to Batman. Not only do we get to see him playing the monster-battling superhero and the clue-analyzing detective, but we also get some great scenes of the bumbling playboy (and the genius who can use that persona to great effect), the fugitive vigilante on the wrong side of a tenuous relationship with the law, and the antidote-concocting super-scientist. While this episode doesn't do much to introduce the viewer to Batman's rogues gallery, it gives a fantastic introduction to Batman himself.

The episode is still just a little rough around the edges, as you might expect from a first episode (I hesitate to call it a "pilot," because I think it technically wasn't, and I can't call it a premiere, because it wasn't the first episode aired, so "first episode" is the best I have). One of the most jarring scenes is when Danny Elfman's Batman theme makes a prominent appearance, which seems somewhat out of place among the rest of the Shirley Walker orchestration. Obviously, that problem--if it could even be called that--would be worked out quickly, as evidenced by the series' amazing soundtrack. To date, I have a hard time thinking of any animated series that has had anything approaching music as incredible as B:TAS.

So, overall, a pleasant reminder of that afternoon in 1992, and a fantastic taste of the series' potential.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A short spoilery thought

Spoilers ahead!
So, given Kyle's history, does this mean that he's been dating himself?

I'm more convinced now than ever that Blackest Night will end with a mass resurrection. And now we know what drives Guy over to the Red Side.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bat-Month: "Snow"

"Snow" is an interesting story that brings a lot of great ideas to the Batman comic continuity. How successful it is at bringing those ideas is somewhat debatable. Running in "Legends of the Dark Knight" in 2005, "Snow" is ostensibly a means of bringing the Animated Series version of Mr. Freeze's origin into the DCU proper. What it ends up being, though, is an origin story for the Batman Family.

A simple click embiggens the smallest image.As with something like 84% of all Batman stories, this is set in Batman's early career--explicitly, "year one and a half." It begins with a nice scene of Alfred, checking the mansion for signs of Bruce, and finally finding him, sprawled and bloody, in the cave. This leads to an interesting scene where we learn that Bruce Wayne owns a hospital bed, and has at least one room of his mansion decked out in medical equipment. Sure, that makes sense, but it's interesting to see the contrast of medical equipment and posh hardwood floors.

Oh, I see he goes to the Final Fantasy stylist.The cuts over to Victor Fries present us with what we'd more or less expect. Victor is a distant and somewhat inattentive husband, and Nora is sick with an unknown illness. Victor is naïvely working on a cryogenics project for the military, believing that they would only use it as a deterrent, not a weapon. He also has the worst haircut this side of Egon Spengler and appears to be working for Groucho Marx. After an attack, Nora is diagnosed with Huntington's Disease.

Meanwhile, there's some friction between Batman and Gordon over the former's apparently crude and dangerous methods. After a tense and terse conversation with Harvey Dent, Batman realizes that he needs allies who aren't hampered by the red tape, regulations, and procedures of professional law enforcement, so he lays out a set of files and photos as if he's going to choose Brad Meltzer's next Justice League. Batman sets about recruiting a motley crew of civilians with a variety of personalities and skill sets, and giving them a headquarters in a well-stocked suite.

Nora is rapidly getting worse, so Victor takes her to the cryogenics facility, apparently hoping to put her in stasis. Unfortunately, the device doesn't react correctly, and it turns out that Fries's employers have been running the weapons testing protocol on the device behind his back. He shuts the process down, but Nora's left encased in a block of ice1. Distraught, Victor turns off the safety devices and lets the cryogenic device explode, hoping to commit suicide.

Quick question: has there ever been a successful suicide attempt in a comic book? It seems like any time it happens, it's the prelude to a heroic resurrection or superhero/supervillain origin story.

Of course, Victor survives. He's delerious now, hallucinating Nora as a weird sort of vengeful fairy. He goes after the coworkers who betrayed him, and inevitably his path crosses with Batman's team. Some ill-fated fights leave various members of the Bat-team injured and angry, until one of them goes rogue and tracks Mr. Freeze down himself. The rogue gets frozen and shattered, but not before shattering Nora's frozen body.

Eventually, thanks to the Bat-Team's ingenuity and some good old-fashioned punching, Batman stops Mr. Freeze, though he escapes to plague the Bat another day. Unfortunately, the danger, death, and dismemberment of the team has led Batman to cut them loose--although they were going to quit anyway.

Reflecting on the events, Bruce realizes that he does need backup, but a team presents the problem of conflicting personalities. Instead, he needs someone who can watch his back, someone he can train himself. And wouldn't you know it, there's an ad for Haly's Circus in the newspaper, featuring the Flying Graysons.

I liked the story when it first came out, and I think that it's pretty good overall. The "early Batman" stories are kind of hit-and-miss for me; I understand the appeal for the writers, but I think they tend toward redundancy. Ultimately, the "year one" stories are an extension of the same tactic that gets used throughout fiction where super-powerful characters must be written into dramatically tense situations. Superman gets his powers removed or gets exposed to Kryptonite; Spider-Man's web-shooters break or run out of fluid; the Star Trek away team gets cut off from the ship, the communicators, and the transporters; the slasher heroine's cell phone doesn't have any reception; and Batman gets his utility belt taken away. The "year one" stories go one step further, taking away all his vaunted experience and skill. I understand the need for these kinds of stories, and done well, they can be very good. But done poorly--or too often--and they look like a crutch, like an admission that the plot doesn't fit the characters, and so the characters must be changed to fit it.

But this story never feels like that. Instead, it forms a much-needed bridge between Batman-the-loner and Batman-the-father. Quite frankly, it makes little sense that Batman would jump straight from a solo mission to training a young boy as his partner. This story makes the process a more gradual one, where he tries to form a backup team, but runs into various problems with their individuality and lack of training. His conclusion toward the end feels a little forced, but this chapter in the Batman history explains why he'd be open to training a Robin and taking on a Batgirl.

The Mr. Freeze story fares less well, though. For Batman, Freeze exists here as a glimpse at the future of his crimefighting endeavors: no longer just mob bosses and grinning psychos, but also deranged supervillains with deadly weaponry out of science fiction stories. Freeze represents a further escalation of the Gotham villain, and shows Batman the need to expand his own operation. Freeze serves that purpose well, but the Freeze origin story falters a bit in the process. As with a lot of things, the Animated Series gave us the best Mr. Freeze, largely because it provided him with a touching and tragic origin and motivation. This story attempts to do the same, and hits most of the key points: Victor scientist, Nora sick, attempted freezing, process foiled by unscrupulous superiors, failure of cryogenic device creates Mr. Freeze, revenge. Unfortunately, there are some twists and turns that I'm less happy about, chief among them making Freeze delusional. I understand the parallel--in the beginning, Fries was inattentive and distant, not really paying attention to Nora, and assuming her agreement with his desires. After his transformation, Nora became an avatar for his desires once more, a hallucinatory guide to spur Victor on toward vengeance and to assure him that she could be revived.

I don't care for the idea of Mr. Freeze being crazy. The Animated Series version of the character was hyper-rational and totally emotionless...what's the word for that? Oh right, cold. The version of the character that this story is trying to evoke (at least in terms of the origin) was tragic and relatable precisely because he was so clearly sane, a man driven to do terrible things by remorseless anger and the desire to feel something again. He's the classic character with nothing left to lose, and I think some of that falls away if he's lost his grip on reality as well.

In a more nitpicky vein, I thought it was strange to give Nora a real-world ailment. I understand the desire to make the Batman mythos relatively believable, but I think there's always a danger in setting up real-world diseases as "incurable"--the same way that there's a danger in curing those diseases with sci-fi or magic within a superhero universe. I guess I just expect characters like Nora to be dying of some fictional ailment, not sharing a diagnosis with Thirteen.

Aside from the characterization missteps with Victor, though, I think the story is quite good. I really enjoy the characters in Batman's army, and I think it'd be interesting to see some of them make a return in the modern day.

And the art? Half of the reason I bought this when it first came out was Seth Fisher's art. I became a fan of Fisher through "Flash: Time Flies" and looked forward to his take on Batman. The art is everything you'd expect from Fisher: clean, incredibly detailed, and often bizarre. There are a couple of places where the art goes a little overboard on the cartoonish/presentational side of the continuum...
I see he's been hanging out with J. Jonah Jameson.

...but overall the book is absolutely gorgeous. Seth Fisher, like Mike Parobeck and Mike Wieringo, was one of those fantastically talented artists with an amazing style who left us far, far too soon. "Snow" is just a small example of the kind of things Fisher was capable of, and it's a real shame he didn't leave behind a more extensive bibliography.

In summary, "Snow" is an amazing-looking book with a slightly less amazing story, which nonetheless fills a new niche in the "early Batman" mythos. Taken all together, it's quite good, and it's among my favorite of the many stories in this era of the Dark Knight's career--even if I don't care for this version of Mr. Freeze.

1. Presumably to be rediscovered by the Sub-Mariner decades hence.

Bat-Month: Hard day at the office

Oh, hey, a blog! And a theme month! I probably ought to post stuff.

Sorry, I've been really busy with real-life concerns. And by real-life concerns, I largely mean that Season 5 of The Office has consumed every moment of my recent free time (and several moments that were expensive). But I've got a stack of Batman stuff and a day off, so once more into the cave!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Bat-Month: Remember, Remember

"V For Vendetta" is an Elseworlds Batman story.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Five O'Clock Shadow in Four Colors

My copy is signed. And pierced.As I'm sure I've mentioned before (such as in the "where I buy comics" section on the right), I get my books from the fine folks at Stand-Up Comics, hands-down the best comic shop in Chicagoland. It's through the fine, fine people at Stand-Up Comics that I met the also fine, if stubbly, guys behind Unshaven Comics, a very independent comic company. Some time ago (the first Saturday in May, in fact), Marc Fishman (1/3 of the Unshaven crew) asked me to review their Free Comic Book Day offering, the "Disposable Razors Sneak Preview."

As with everything I do, naturally, it's taken me far longer than it should have to get around to it. I have some excuses, and I really did want to wait until I could give the book my full attention, but I really should have had this review done a considerably long time ago. So without further ado, I present "Disposable Razors: Sneak Preview."

The issue consists of six teasers and a couple of advertisements (one of which is for Stand-Up Comics, clearly the best comic shop in Illinois and Northern Indiana), of varying length and, frankly, quality. I'll tackle them in order, with some wrap-up thoughts at the end.

Saving the world from libido-quashing snacks since 2006.Our first story is near and dear to me, featuring Stand-Up Guy, the superheroic mascot of Stand-Up Comics, the greatest comic shop in the Midwest. Stand-Up Guy is in reality Stanley Dupgui, a mild-mannered reporter and frequent Stand-Up Comics patron and spokesperson. So far, he's appeared as an action figure (with chase variant!), a trading card, and the star of two comic book stories, in that (approximate) order. You can check out his backstory for yourself, as explained on the back of his official trading card.

This makes the Stand-Up Guy story in "Disposable Razors" interesting, because it seems to take place in an alternate continuity for the character--one in which he is a part-time weekend cashier, and his origin is somewhat different (or he's confused about it, which can be No-Prized away with an appeal to the whole mindwiping thing from his backstory). I can't help but be reminded of how the 1940 Superman radio program began with an origin story that wildly contradicted the established comic continuity, which had existed for less than two years. Perhaps this backstory dissonance is a subtle commentary on comic book continuity issues, who can say?

The story itself is built around an amusing premise, where Stand-Up Guy fights his nemesis, Improf Komedy, in the Stand-Up Comics shop, while the owners and proprietors watch (and comment). There are some good ideas here, but overall the story feels like it tries too hard. The humor is too forced, and I can't help but think it might have been better for the Unshaven guys to sit down with the Stand-Up guys and just toss out crazy ideas in conversation for a few hours until something resembing an absurd plot would gel. If nothing else, the humor would be more suited to the coveted 18-25 Illinois Comic Blogger demographic.

Moving on, the second story is an excerpt from "The March," Unshaven's first published graphic novel, about the immigrant experience in America. "The March" came out a few years ago, and just moving from the first story to the second makes that clear. The art is a lot rougher here, and while it's clear that the artist has a great eye for framing shots (whatever the comic book equivalent of direction is in movies), it's even more clear that he's grown quite a lot as an artist since the work was published. The facial expressions are awkwatd, the inking lacks nuance, being largely all-or-nothing, the coloring is inconsistent on the character's skin. Where the art isn't dealing with detailed people, it's spot-on, but the character work is pretty rough. Also, it's kind of weird to see the f-bomb done in comic book censorship style in an indie comic. That's nitpicky, but it kind of sticks out as odd; there's no Comics Code to hold you back, and the current trend seems more toward the "black bars" school of censoring.

That seems overly negative, but let me repeat: just by going back to the previous story (a more recent effort), it's clear to see how much the art has grown. There's still the same eye for well-staged panels, and while some of the faces and bodies are still a bit awkward, the art, coloring, and inking is far more polished in the Stand-Up Guy story.

I apologize, by the way, for doing this review without scans of any sort. I don't have access to a scanner at the moment, but I may come back and re-edit George Lucas the post when I do.

The next story is something called "The White," and the lettering and art lead me to believe it was produced between "The March" and "Stand-Up Guy." I feel like an evolutionary biologist, trying to organize fossils by their traits--it's comic book cladistics. The story--such as it is--follows a young comic fan hipster-type after he falls through some wormhole into a dimension that functions a bit like The Bleed, with portals looking into other worlds. Our nameless protagonist is guided (and mocked) by a Skeets-lookalike robot whose name can be acronymized to "AESOP" (though he's never actually called that--although they hang a lampshade or two on the Skeets appearance) There's some great art here, although the figures and faces are still awkward. Inconsistencies in the protagonist's clothes and hairstyle are handwaved away by an in-story appeal to infinite possibilities and limited perception, but the inconsistencies aren't quite frequent or extreme enough to look intentional. At the end of the story, AESOP changes his appearance to become a floating face instead of a floating robot thing, but the reasoning is kind of odd.

I imagine that this is the pilot story for an anthology-type series, where the protagonist and The White are vehicles for alternate-universe morality plays, making this a kind of Twilight Zone-meets-Sliders concept. That much is cool, and I hope to see Unshaven Comics expand on the idea. Unfortunately, "The White" reads like a brainstorming session rather than a story. It feels like the script and art were done largely together, while the actual universe was still being built, which would explain AESOP's skin change at the end and such--it had to fall in line with the next iteration of the story. It reminds me of stories I wrote as a kid--or portions of my NaNoWriMo novel from a few years back--where I just wrote without really knowing where I was going, and worked out the kinks of the universe through the characters' dialogue. It's not necessarily a bad idea, but it doesn't make for the most compelling read.

I keep ending these reviews on such down-notes, and feeling like I have to do the "criticism sandwich" thing. As I said, the idea is good, it's the execution that needs work, and I have little doubt that this idea will work when there's a story to tell, and not just a framing device to set up.

The next story is the one that stuck most solidly in my mind after first reading the comic months ago, and consequently it's the one I've most looked forward to reviewing: "Ironside: Living Will." The narration in the story is in the form of a somewhat (intentionally) rambling letter from aging World War II-era soldier-superhero Ironside, to his superhero son. Having watched his whole unit die of old age and disease, Ironside is prompted to power up and go down fighting. The characterization is spot-on, as the narrative letter moves from the news of his friend's death, to the realities of war, to advice on superhero costuming, and finally to grudging respect and a final goodbye. It's six pages, but just from the narration we get to see a nicely multifaceted protagonist.

While this is going on, the art is telling its own story. The art and narration are parallel for a page or so, but eventually diverge, as Ironside powers up and puts on his fatigues, then foils a bank robbery by some thugs from 1-800-GO-GOONS and a lame supervillain wearing the Power Glove and Mega Man's Mega Blaster. He brutally assaults the thugs, and it's at least implied that he kills the villain. I've talked about my love for this kind of storytelling device before--Robert Kirkman has used similar devices a couple of times--where the words and art tell separate stories. It's something that really only works in comic books, and it's nice to see the medium's idiosyncracies being used as an asset. The narrative/art divide drives home the apparent point: that Ironside is going to go out not like a hero, but like a soldier, brutally taking down the supervillain enemy one by one. There are some elements to the story--and not just the protagonist's metallic skin--which remind me of the "Tarnished Angel" story in Astro City, and that's a pretty positive connection to build.

The art here is black-and-white, in contrast to the rest of the book, and I think that's a good thing overall. The inking is a little heavy (as it is elsewhere in the issue), but that works out well here with the darker story and the metallic protagonist. Some work could be done on the faces in some panels, but overall this is the most artistically polished story in the book, and the most compelling one to boot. I hope Unshaven Comics follows up on this story in the future; they have at least one guaranteed customer if they do.

The next story is a four-panel comic strip called "Ra: the Happy Sun God." I really can't describe it without going far too long-winded, so I'll just say that it feels like it'd make a pretty fun webcomic. That's not meant to be a knock on it, by the way. The simplified art is well-done, and I think the rest of the stories (with the possible exception of "Ironside") might do well to take a page from this style. The linework is clean and simple, a stark contrast to the often sketchy linework of other chapters. Again, this sounds more negative than it's meant to be; "sketchiness" is a stylistic choice as well (see also: John Romita Jr., Tom Mandrake, Bill Sienkewicz), but I think a little cleanup in the inking stage would help out in a lot of places--and this little strip is proof of that. The one complaint I have is that there are a lot of faint horizontal lines in each of the panels, and I;m not sure if that's an artifact of the paper or the scanning or what. In any case, it almost makes it look like the strip was initially drawn on note paper, which doesn't look particularly professional.

"Chasing Daylight: Prologue" is a one-page introduction to what appears to be a vampire story, narrated from the vampire's point of view. The art is great here, with just the right amount of detail, just the right amount of inking, and some very good coloring. There aren't many faces here, which makes it hard to compare to the other stories' biggest trouble spots, but what's apparent looks like an improvement. The biggest flaw I notice is in some wonky perspective on a car door in the first panel, which is a pretty minor detail. There's not much to the story, just a guy abandoning his car to try to escape a vampire on foot (and naturally failing), so I can't really evaluate that. I can't say that the preview does too much for me; it's too short to provide any interesting twists or tweaks on the vampire genre that would draw me in, and I think the market on bloodsuckers is largely saturated right now. I'd certainly be willing to re-examine this opinion in light of longer stories, but I doubt I'd get as excited about this as I am about "Ironside."

The final page is an ad for "The All New Samurnauts," which looks like a spacefaring Power Ranger-style team led by "an immortal samurai monkey." I'd have to know a little more about the premise before I could say anything about the series--particularly how seriously it's going to take itself--but monkeys, astronauts, and evil dinosaurs sounds like the recipe for fun comics.

Oh, and before I forget, I really like the cover.

So, overall? It's a mixed bag. "Stand-Up Guy" is fairly fun, but with limited appeal. "The Stand" has some rough art, but I can't say much about the story based on this excerpt. "Chasing Daylight" has a nice look to it, but I'd need to read more before anything would hook me. "The White" looks and feels pretty rough, but I think it'll work well if/when it's not the focus. "Ra: The Happy Sun God" would make a fun backup feature or webcomic, though I'm not sure it could carry its own issue or series. Finally, there's "Ironside," which I recommend without reservation.

The bottom line is that the Unshaven Comics crew have quite a bit of potential. At times, that potential comes through full-force, and at times it feels rougher and less refined. You can piece together a pretty clear learning curve throughout the preview, and that bodes well for their next release.

Speaking of which, I've just received word from Unshaven Marc that said release, which follows through on "The White," "Chasing Daylight," and "Ironside," will be released in time for Christmas. "Ironside" alone would be enough to make me run out and purchase it, but I'm curious to see where "Chasing Daylight" ends up, and how well "The White" works as a framing device (by the way, I totally called that). If you're in Illinois or Indiana, it's only a short trip to Stand-Up Comics, the best comic shop in America, which is guaranteed to be carrying Unshaven Comics in December, or you can watch the Unshaven Comics website for further news. Based on the preview, I recommend giving their upcoming release a shot, and I'm curious to see where it all goes from here.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Bat-Month: To Be Continued!

I figured, if I could give Superman a sixty-day-long "month" of celebration for his 70th birthday, it's only fair to do the same for Batman. I've been busy, so I haven't been posting as much as I'd like, and I've been caught up on a couple of reviews that I haven't quite finished. I've got half of a review of "Batman: Venom" that I wanted to finish before I tackled "Batman: Snow," so those are both coming up soon. I'm going to do some quick-ish reviews of various Batman: TAS episodes, running through some of my favorites. I also have grand plans to liveblog several Batman films, but we'll see how that works out.

Oh, and as a final note, I have an important, heavily belated non-Batman-related review to write that, if all goes well, will be out by Monday. Keep your fingers crossed.