Thursday, January 12, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: January 11th

All-Star Batman #6 (DC Comics) For the initial story arc of the new All-Star Batman book, in which former Batman writer Scott Snyder will team with an all-star artist to tell a story arc focused on different member of Batman's extensive rogues gallery, Snyder and pencil artist John Romita Jr. treated their "My Own Worst Enemy" as an over-the-top action movie. More specifically, a modern over-the-top action movie whose filmmakers made deliberate, in-your-face stylistic choices to make elements of it evoke older, grittier action movies.

Appropriate enough for a story arc drawn by JRJR and featuring a plot that included enemies hand-cuffed together, a series of action set-pieces during a road trip and an antagonist named "The KGBeast," who had a machine gun for a hand.

This is the first issue of the new arc, and now Snyder is paired with one-named artist Jock (colored by Matt Hollingsworth), for a story about Mister Freeze. They here make a rather deliberate storytelling choice to make this arc closely resemble a prose story...to the extent that it's possible to do so in the medium, without subtracting images from the pages.

So a Bendisian amount of verbiage appears in narration boxes throughout. There are no dialogue balloons. At all. That's not because there is no dialogue, but rather the dialogue also appears in narration boxes, denoted as something spoken aloud by quotation marks...and context (There are no "Batman said" or "Mister Freeze replied" in these boxes). As for who is speaking the spoken lines, context often does it, but they are further differentiated by color: Batman in white text, Freeze in red.

I have no idea why Snyder and/or Jock may have made this particular choice--It may have been a desire not to cover up Jock's art with dialogue balloons and their attendant tails. It does allow one to see more of Jock's art on a panel by panel basis, although moving all of the dialogue into narration boxes just eats up the same if not more amount of real estate per page anyway. It may also have just been to do something different (I hope this isn't the case with every arc; I really don't want to read a Penguin story told via sitcom script or an Orca story via sea shanty...well, wait, actually I might...).

It works as far as the "being different" goal might go, but I don't know that it adds anything. Because of the sparse, painterly style in which Jock works, it basically just looks like an overly-complex children's picture book; overly illustrated prose. I'm not sure it adds anything of real value to the experience though, but, on the other hand, it doesn't subtract anything either.

As I've likely mentioned a few times before already, Mister Freeze is a particularly challenging Batman villain to center a story on, as there really only seems to be one good Mister Freeze story, and it's already been told. The threat posed here in "Ends of the Earth" is that a shirtless Freeze has raised a zombie-like army of people who had voluntarily been cryogenically frozen (the hows of that feat aren't mentioned here), and gone to the arctic circle in order to unfreeze a long dormant virus, kept inert in the ice for millennia, in order to release it on the Earth and cleans it of life, upon which time he will attempt to unfreeze his wife...if he's still alive, I guess.

Batman has a plan to counter that, of course, but the cliffhanger ending is not unlike the premise of the previous arc, in that it puts him and Freeze in very close quarters, likely depending on one another to a degree.

The Duke Thomas-starring back-up, which was absent last issue in order to make room for an extra-large climactic installment of the previous arc, returns with a fifth chapter. It is now drawn by Francesco Francavilla. It's only seven pages long, and involves Batman and Duke dealing with a deadly challenge/trap supposedly set by The Riddler. I found it well worthwhile for the tiny single panel in which Francavilla draws a pretty cool Scarecrow.


Deathstroke # (DC) Artist Cary Nord is still here, for the next installment of "Four Rooms," which features four different narrative threads starring a young, "Year One" style Slade Wilson, the current Slade Wilson, Rose Wilson and Jericho. All four are extremely well written, as one should certainly expect from Christopher Priest at this point, and they are also surprisingly substantial, each feeling longer and more eventful than their actual page allotment would suggest. Of all the "Rebirth"-launched titles, this is the one I am most surprised to find myself still reading at this point.


Detective Comics #948 (DC) Artist Ben Oliver and co-writer Marguerite Bennett joins regular writer James Tyninon IV for "Batwoman Begins," which is apparently meant to help set-up a new Batwoman monthly by Bennett, who has written a pretty fine Batwoman in the pages of Bombshells for awhile now.

There's not much to this issue, which focuses on Batman and Batwoman investigating "Monstertown" together; that is apparently the colloquial name given to the area of Gotham Harbor where the fifth and final, composite member of the Monster Men collapsed at the end of "Night of The Monster Men"...and where SHIELD ARGUS set up a quarantined research facility in order to weaponize the monster leftovers/make sure no one else weaponizes the monster leftovers.

The quarantine doesn't look very professional so far, as there appears to just be a gigantic spine and rib cage laying on the docks (I could have sworn the monster just completely vomited himself out of existence), and sea gulls are able to land on the bones, get gooped and transform into horrible monsters...the better for the Bats to fight. Let's get, like, a tarp or something to throw over those monster bones, huh ARGUS?

Page space is also devoted to recapping elements rebooted origin story (Just ten years old, and her origin already had to be revised post-Flashpoint) and re-introducing a threat from the first arc of the de-relaunched Detective Comics, The Colony. It's fine, but if what you've been reading Detective for since "Rebirth" is the cast and team dynamics, you'll likely be disappointed by what is essentially just an issue of Batwoman guest-starring Batman...or is it an issue of Batman guest-starring Batwoman...?


Gotham Academy: Second Semester #5 (DC) After the ill-timed fill-in story DC ran last month, Gotham Academy is back on track, presenting the first issue in quite a while that really seems to meet the promise of the premise.


Jughead #12 (Archie Comics) Although Jughead's name is on the book, this is as much a Reggie story as it is a Jughead one. After a seven-page sequence devoted to the gang playing a Ryan North-ized version of Mario Kart, the game's winner Reggie claims his prize: To be king for a day. Frustrated by his silly demands, Jughead challenges him to a rematch, then a re-rematch, resulting in Reggie being king of them all for a month. How will he abuse his power...? In a pretty unexpected way, that will be explored next issue.

North is still working with artist Derek Charm, who I continue to think is the best of the new Riverdale line's artists. His Reggie, with always seemingly closed, Captain Marvel-like eyes, is a real delight, and Charm does an excellent job in both the over-the-top silly world of the game and the "real" world, where his characters retain enough of their decades-old designs to feel like themselves, not matter how different the art looks from any era of Archie "house" style (There's at least one panel I can think of that looks like Dan DeCarlo or Dan Parent could have drawn it).

There's an awful lot of bizarre visual or physical comedy in this issue, and Charm just nails it all.

I do wish Archie would cut it out with all these goddam variants, though. The image I posted above? That's one of the three covers for this issue, and maybe the worst. The Charm-drawn one perfectly encapsulates the contents of the book, in terms of the particular cast, the style of the art and at least a suggestion of the plot, whereas this and the third image are more or less random.

I know there's some dumb reason involving sales and rack space that keeps publishers printing variants, but I am not a fan, and wish Archie would instead of giving two other artists paychecks to draw extra covers, maybe just invest that money in raises for Charm and North (On the other hand, I guess variants do provide the opportunity for plenty of artists to supplement their income, so I don't know).

This issue does not contain a back-up, but rather a five-page sequence that is basically just an ad for the upcoming dark, sexy Archie TV show, Riverdale. Normally, that would annoy the hell out of me...but this revealed to me that Luke Perry was going to play Archie's dad in the cast! Luke Perry! Of Beverly Hills, 90210 fame! What could be better than that? For the very first time, I find myself super-excited abut dark, sexy Archie!


Justice League/Power Rangers #1 (DC/Boom Studios) Well, I was naturally disappointed with this, but then, I usually am disappointed with crossovers featuring sets of characters that have lived in my imagination in one way or another for most of my life...as was the case with Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or DC Universe Vs. Masters of The Universe, there's really no way I could not be disappointed (That said, the first issue of this was superior to the first issue of either of those...by a long, long, long ways, in the case of the He-Man one).

Writer Tom Taylor and artist Stephen Byrne do okay here though, using the safest set-up that would allow for this story to be kinda sorta in-continuity--the two title franchises are set in their own universes, and the wall between those dimensions is breached (Of course, the Superman who shows up here has the red boots of New 52 Superman, not the blue ones of "Rebirth" Superman, even though Batman is wearing his Rebirth costume). So Taylor isn't reimagining either franchise too much, or imagining them in the same world, making for a distinct, standalone crossover story (like, say, IDW's last Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe series), nor is he presenting this as, like, an episode of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers crossed with an issue of Justice League. It's just the two comic book series, featuring the characters literally crossing over a dimensional barrier so they can temporarily share settings. .

I'm going to write about this at some length elsewhere, so I won't get too deep into it here. It didn't knock my socks off or meet my un-meetable expectations, but it was fine, and given the amount of page-space devoted to set-up, it will be difficult to judge how well Taylor handles certain parts of the equation. We get all of the Rangers, Lord Zedd and Zordon, but only Batman, The Flash and, briefly, Superman and Cyborg (The Karl Kerschl cover promises Green Lantern John Stewart, which would further make this hard to place in DC continuity, as he hasn't been on the League since the reboot).

I thought the coloring, also by Byrne, was a little too dark, particularly considering that half of the participating characters are literally defined by their bright colors. Otherwise, the art is pretty great, and manages to capture the likenesses of some of the actors playing the Rangers on the TV show without the character designs ever looking too stiff or forced (Sole exception? Kimberly--no artist can capture the beauty of Amy Jo Johnson, I'm afraid).

So the Power Rangers accidentally land in Gotham City, assume Batman is a Lord Zedd monster (as if; his costume is way less goofy-looking than any of those guys!), and he calls in the League for back-up when it becomes apparent that even Batman can't fight six Power Rangers at once. It ends with a wonderful line of dialogue.

I'd definitely recommend it to Power Rangers fans...and perhaps to Justice League fans desperate for a decent Justice League comic (I can't speak for all fans of Leagues of superheroes assembling to fight for Justice, but I haven't really enjoyed any of their adventures in a long, long time, and the Bryan Hitch-written monthly seems even less engaging than all the mediocre New 52 stuff that preceded it).
But after seeing Dan Hipp's cover, I realized what I really wanted to read was a Batman/Pink Ranger crossover, where Kimberly ends up in Gotham City and decides to stay. She becomes Batman's new partner, and after issues of arguing bats vs. dinosaurs, robins vs. pterodactyls and color schemes, she eventually becomes The Pink Robin.


Reggie and Me #2 (Archie) It's a little weird that two Archie comics prominently featuring Reggie Mantle came out today, and the stronger of the two isn't the one with Reggie's name in the title. In the second issue of the Vader-narrated Reggie And Me (Vader being the rescue dog who is the "And Me" of the title), we learn a bit about the history of Reggie and Archie enmity, and, as I read it, it seems to basically boil down to Betty being kind of a jerk to Reggie and being over-infatuated with "Little Archie," as she kept referring to the young Archie in these flashbacks (part of a in-joke, of course). Writer Tom DeFalco and artist Sandy Jarrell do a pretty great job of giving Reggie a real sense of pathos in this issue, explaining why he is such a jerk, but where the book falls down compared to the rest of the new Riverdale line is the fact that it's just not really that funny. It's not that the jokes are bad, it's just that there are remarkably fewer jokes than there are in the rest of the other books. I was pleased to see there was a back-up, this one a six-pager from 1949 in which Ms. Grundy and Mr. Weatherbee decide to go a little easier on Reggie than they initially planned after realizing that they too were somewhat Reggie-esque in their youth.


Suicide Squad (DC) Feh. Who needs Jim Lee? Artist Riley Rossmo steps up to handle the art chores usually reserved for DC's co-publisher and a guest-artist, Rossmo drawing an entire 20-page story (the book's first since "Rebirth"). A kinda sorta tie-in to the ongoing Justice League Vs. Suicide Squad crossover series, this flashback story details the story of Amanda Waller's first Suicide Squad: Lobo, The Emerald Enchantress, Doctor Polaris, Johnny Sorrow, field commander Rustam and last-minute addition Cyclotron (If you're reading JL V. SS, then you know which of them don't survive this particular suicide mission.

That mission? Take out the metahuman soldier/weapons created by a vaguely North Korea-like fictional island country in the Pacific, as well as the infrastructure needed to make more. This powerful team meets that goal, even when new facts on the ground reveal that the amount of collateral damage necessary to do so will lead to a five-figure body count. That's fine with them, but no so much with Waller, who tries to kill them all and then reevaluates the idea of using a rewards-based incentive for her teams of psychotic super-villains, thinking maybe tiny bombs planted in their brains would be better (She skipped right over explosive bracelets meant to destroy their arms!).

There's not much too the story of this issue, which is pretty much literally a fight comic, pitting New 52/Rebirth-ed villains against new, one-off nationalistic super-soldiers, but it proves a nice showcase for Rossmo, who does his usual superb job on the art. I particularly like the expressiveness he brings to Johnny Sorrow's empty suit and mask.


Wonder Woman #14 (DC) Ares' helmet is out of control. It's like he sat down with Nicola Scott to design his new costume, and she was like, "Okay, well here are some evil signifiers I've come up with for your helmet to show what a bad-ass god of war you are, which would you like to try?" And Ares is just like "All of them. Also, more horns. And snakes. Living snakes."
Not pictured? His ponytail. Seriously.
Similarly, his dialogue bubbles are kind of out of control here. If he's not going to be in a debating club with Dream and The Endless, he probably doesn't need one quite so specific.

This issue concludes the "Year One" story arc, in which Wonder Woman confronts Ares, with an assist from her patrons (in animal form). Writer Greg Rucka does a fine job of the basic conflict between Wonder Woman and Ares/War here, which has become central to the character outside of her original World War II context, as it becomes war in general that she has left her island to combat, rather than to fight in a specific war. I liked the splash page in which she defeats him, and he explodes into a pile of scary animals, but maybe not for the right reasons. The climax of the SEAR group terrorist plot is a little anti-climatic, following the confrontation with the god of war himself, but also kind of funny, as Wonder Woman flies around the world with shirtless Steve Trevor tucked under her arm like a doll, foiling simultaneous terror plots (mapped out by an owl on a smart phone).

Rucka has moved beyond a shared interest in the poetry of Sappho to demonstrate that Etta Candy and Barbara Minerva are romantically interested in one another, by the way. Still trying to wrap my head around an Etta that has a passionate interest in anything other than candy, but that's likely because I've spent too much time in the Golden Age (Certainly the Etta of The Legend of Wonder Woman was into boys, and the post-Crisis Etta did marry Steve). Scott's art, here colored by Romulo Fajardo Jr., looks better than it ever has before. There's a real sense of the detail that George Perez brought and brings to his art, but the lay-outs are far less crowded and claustrophobic than Perez's Wonder Woman could be. She's pretty much the perfect, or at least a perfect, Wonder Woman artist for 2017.

Monday, January 09, 2017

"Night of the Monster Men," reviewed

It might seem a little early for a crossover story, given that DC Comics' "Rebirth" initiative is only a few months old and that the first story arcs of this period are just now wrapping up, but you know how it is in Gotham City. One night it's a paramilitary organization attempting to assassinate citizens with drone-mounted weapons, the next giant monsters are rampaging.

"Night of the Monster Men" was a six-part story that ran weekly through two issues a piece of Batman, Detective Comics and Nightwing, detailing Batman and his many allies' attempts to safeguard the city from bizarre monsters created by Hugo Strange and set loose on the city as part of an elaborate (and rather silly) attempt to dramatize the renegade psychologist's diagnosis of Batman's flawed psyche.

Before we get into the story itself, it is probably useful to remind ourselves what's been going on in Gotham City just prior to this event story.

Batman recently took Duke Thomas under his wing and began training him as a new partner, here taking the unusual step of not naming him Robin (Duke wears a black and yellow, bat-themed costume when on the streets, but thus far hasn't taken a codename of any kind). Among their very first challenges were facing two metahuman superheroes–Gotham and Gotham Girl–driven mad by Psycho-Pirate's Medusa Mask. Gotham died, but Gotham Girl survived, and has been living in the Batcave with them (For more on Duke, check out All-Star Batman; he's been appearing in both the main story and starring in a back-up feature).

At Batman's behest, Batwoman has been training Spoiler (Stephanie Brown), Orphan (Cassandra Cain) and criminally insane supervillain Clayface (Basil Karlo). Their first big mission was trying to stop her father and his secret splinter group of the U.S. military from killing dozens of Gothamites that they believed were part of a conspiracy that may or may not even exist. Batman's new team succeeded, but at the cost of Red Robin Tim Drake's life...or so it seemed. In reality, he was saved only to be imprisoned by the mysterious Mr. Oz (This was the first story arc of the recently de-relaunched Detective Comics).

The original Robin, Dick Grayson, recently retired from his brief career as a super-spy for Spyral and resumed his Nightwing identity. He's currently working alongside a sketchy new partner named Raptor to stop the Court of Owls from going international (in the pages of Nightwing, obviously).

As for Batman's other allies, current Robin Damian Wayne is MIA (apparently off founding a new iteration of the Teen Titans, as can be seen in the pages of Teen Titans), Batgirl is traveling Asia (in Batgirl) and Red Hood is semi-undercover as a bad guy in an effort to infiltrate Black Mask's criminal organization (in Red Hood and The Outlaws).

Now, if the Monster Men sound familiar to you, there's a good reason for that. Batman first faced off against Hugo Strange's Monster Men in 1940's Batman #1, in a story entitled "The Giants of Hugo Strange." In that story, most likely written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson (although credits weren't exactly trustworthy in that particular franchise at that particular point in time), Strange injected five insane men with a super-serum that turned them into 15-foot-tall ogres bent on mindless destruction–a perfect cover for his robberies.

Matt Wagner returned to that material for his 2006 miniseries Batman and The Monster Men, which expanded and updated the story to fit into modern Batman continuity and meet modern comic story-telling style. Both would have been knocked out of the character's official history with 2011's Flashpoint-driven reboot, making this third version of the story the official one. The monster men in Wagner's telling were still very man-like; not so in writer Steve Orlando and company's version.

Batman #7 ("Night of the Monster Men," Part 1) by writers Steve Orlando and Tom King and artist Riley Rossmo

Even without the threat of monster men, this is going to be a pretty terrible night for Gotham City, as Hurricane Milton is bearing down on it. That's right, a hurricane. Gotham City not only sits atop a massive fault line (see "Cataclysm" and "No Man's Land"), it's also in the path of hurricanes, making it the most dangerous place to live on the eastern seaboard, and that's just when considering the natural disasters!

This is explained via a radio announcer, for which I blame the issue's co-plotter Tom King, as he used that device in "Robin War" as well. Batman is meeting with his top lieutenants Batwoman and Nightwing atop a building, telling them that they are going to make sure no one dies at all, no matter what, to which they both essentially reply not to be so crazy, Batman; it's not like you can punch out a hurricane. Batman is really upset about Tim Drake's fake death, though, and so he calls "everyone" in.

Here "everyone" merely means Spoiler, Orphan, Clayface and the Gotham City Police Department. I've already mentioned where his other sidekicks are, although I'm not sure why he hasn't called in the Justice League, as presumably Superman, for example, actually could punch out the hurricane...or at least use his various spectacular powers to divert it. Of course, one could always ask why Batman doesn't just call his bro Superman to come solve any problem he's faced with, and readers of Batman comics generally have to just accept the fact that Batman won't call in the League because they are reading a Batman comic and not a Justice League comic. That's a little more difficult in this case, though, as he just called the League in two issues ago to help him take down Gotham (the mad superhero, not the city), and, as we'll see, the League eventually shows up during the course of this story, right when they are needed the least.

The plan is for Clayface to split into a bunch of selves, each of them in the shape of GCPD officer, and his clay-selves, Spoiler and Orphan will help evacuate the city and keep peace at the caves outside of town.

And then a monster shows up, so Batman takes Batwoman and Nightwing to deal with that while the others handle crowd control.

Said monster is very, very different from the previous versions of the monster men. These monsters begin their "lives" as corpses laid out on tables in a morgue, and then start...dripping. Red goo. Hugo Strange, meanwhile, is working out in the nude.
You can see his butt and everything. He looks at his watch and says, "It is time to start." And bam, the corpses start going "FSSSSSS" and swelling and bubbling and dripping and mutating (one of these, I should note, is a woman, not a man, so maybe this should have been called "Night of the Monster People").

The first monster looks like a two-story tall baby, one fat baby arm bigger, redder and fatter than the other, with a massive, swollen, mushroom cloud-shaped head with a huge red eye in the middle of it.
Batman loses his Batplane to it immediately, then starts buzzing it in a cool little "combat capsule" jetpack thingee that Steel apparently built for or with him ("Remind me to thank John Henry. Steel was right. Handles like a dream"). Batman then manages to kill the monster with fire, but don't worry; as Alfred and Duke, oracle-ing from the Batcave inform him, it's not "traditionally alive." Besides, we saw it mutate from a corpse, so we know it was dead before the battle began, meaning Batman is free to "kill" these monsters.

Using giant syringes to take tissue samples and with Alfred and Duke on the computers, Batman and team are able to determine that the giant baby monster was the guy who slit his own throat in front of Commissioner Gordon the previous Batman arc, warning "The Monster Men are...coming." Also, it has heavily modified cells, "like programmable stem cells, but super-charged."

But this is, of course, only the first monster. A second appears on the final splash page (that's the one at the top of the post), this one even less human in appearance, bearing a body something like that of a huge pteradon, but with a long, maned neck terminating in a fang-filled animal head with six red eyes. At this point it becomes pretty clear what this story is going to end up being all about: Batman vs. kaiju, basically.

I immediately thought of Steve Niles and Kelley Jones' series Batman: Gotham After Midnight, during the course of which Batman broke out a giant monster-fighting machine he had made, which was essentially just a giant metal punching machine.
Batman's giant monster punching machine, from Batman: Gotham After Midnight #3.
If you'll recall, he used that device to fight Clayface, who, in that story, had grown to giant proportions. As Clayface is now on Batman's side, perhaps he would grow giant and fight a monster hand-to-hand in this too...? One could only hope.

My next thought? Okay, maybe now you call in the Justice League. Multiple giant monsters seems more like a League-level threat than Gotham (the guy, not the city) was in issue #5, you know?

This chapter is drawn by Rossmo, who is probably the strongest of the three artists involved in this story. I'm not sure who designed the monsters, but they deserve high-fives; they are all very different from one another, and some of them look like Guy Davis-level weird; more anime monsters than old-school kaiju (Cover artist Yannick Paquette unfortunately does a poor job of featuring the monsters themselves on these covers, as you can see above; I can't tell you how disappointed I am that they didn't have Jones draw these covers, as Batman and monsters are pretty much his exact wheelhouse).
The most noticeable thing about Rossmo's Batman? Goodness are his ears tiny! I mean, Paquette draws fairly small ears on Batman, but Rossmo's Batman has ears that are smaller than Bob Brown or Dick Sprang's Batman ears; they are only slightly longer than those of Kingdome Come Red Robin's or Midnighter's bat-ears, and, if you say, "But Kingdom Come's Red Robin and Midnighter don't have bat-ears," then I say to you, "Exactly."

I wonder where Sims would place Rossmo's bat-ears on the Sprang-Jones scale...?

Nightwing #5 ("Night of The Monster Men," Pt. 2) by writers Steve Orlando and Tim Seeley and artist Roge Antonio

In the Batcave, Duke is whining to Alfred about having to stay indoors with him doing computer stuff instead of being out there fighting giant monsters with Batman, while Gotham Girl, wearing Duke's old Robin jacket over her superhero costume like they are going steady or something, remarks that she can hear buildings crumbling and giant heartbeats with her super-hearing. Guys, there's an entire mansion a short elevator ride above you; surely you can find Gotham Girl something to wear aside from Duke's old coat.

In the city, Batman and Batwoman take on the second of the monsters, the one that looks a bit like a huge furry pterosaur with a weird head, while Nightwing is tasked with tracking down Hugo Strange, starting with the morgue where the corpse that grew into the first monster was last seen.

Before he goes, Nightwing mentions that Batman does have a giant-monster fighting plan (Ooh, I hope it's that Kelley Jones contraption!), which he calls "The Tower contingencies" and Batman calls "The Wayne Watchtowers." By whatever name they are called, however, we are told that they are too dangerous to activate before the city has been completely cleared.

Does Batman have giant-monster fighting mechas all folded-up inside a few of his properties? Is the climax of this series going to involve our heroes launching giant, bat-themed Evas?

We'll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, Batman activates Duke's "special project," "The Bat-Beacon." This is essentially Batman's own emergency broadcast system, which projects holograms of Batman out of all the street lights, so he can tell people to evacuate and to keep a stiff upper-lip and everything.

From there, he and Batwoman grab some super-motorcycles to fight the monster with; by the time they've engaged it thusly, it has grown two more heads.

As for the girls, they are helping Detective Harvey Bullock and other members of the GCPD move evacuees into the cave system outside of town, but something weird is going on there. Everyone is getting irritable and angry, as is prone to happen in such situations, but there's a red liquid covering them, so maybe their anger isn't entirely natural?

At the morgue, Nightwing does not find Strange, nude or otherwise, but he does find evidence that there are not two, but four monsters that have burrowed their way out of there. Our Oracle Bros Alfred and Duke help determine the identity of one of the dead guys-turned-monster, and Nightwing realizes that it is headed for Blackgate prison.

This is the monster on the cover. Monster #3 is roughly human-sized from the waist up, with a Nosferatu-like head, a desiccated torso and insect-like arms and legs. It drags a gigantic, bloated mass behind it, likely containing something super-gross.

Nigthwing is in the process of hurriedly assembling a hang glider or something to fly out to Blackgate with when Gotham Girl rockets passed him on her way to save the day. If you missed Tom King's initial Batman arc, her deal is that she and her brother were both given Superman-like powers, but the more they use them, the quicker they burn out their life forces. Additionally, she is suffering the effects of a the Psycho-Pirate's Medusa Mask, so Batman and Duke would both prefer she just hang out in the Batcave, rather than fly off to fight giant monsters.
In this scene, it becomes clear why she is still wearing her superhero costume with a zip-up jacket over it; it's so she can un-zip that jacket to reveal the big, one-letter logo of her superhero costume, Superman-style.

Detective Comics #941 ("Night of The Monster Men," Pt. 3) by writers Steve Orlando and James Tynion IV and artist Andy MacDonald

Batwoman, still fighting Monster #2 atop a motorcycle, checks in with everyone via radio, so that during the course of a five-panel sequence we can be reminded of who is doing what where (and also see incoming artist Andy MacDonald's renditions of all the characters right off the, um, bat). Batman continues to try to talk Gotham Girl out of flying to confront Monster #3 at Blackgate, saying Nightwing will be there soon, and she talks a bit of smack: "Whoever Nightwing is he isn't fast enough or strong enough."

Much of the action in this issue is divided between two battlegrounds: The caves outside Gotham where Spoiler, Orphan and the GCPD have corralled the evacuating citizens, and Blackgate prison.

The people in the caves have gradually started questioning authority and fighting one another and, thanks to the red goop, begin to act with a sort of hive mind, turning on the heroes and law enforcement.
In an incredible act of being-smart, Spoiler starts thinking about the way plants, molds, fungi and algae communicate, and thus how to combat this goop, which is apparently another monster of sorts. New 52 Stephanie Brown, who is now apparently a genius (she sure made out in the reboot, huh?) comes up with a plan to neutralize the goop without killing or harming the people it's possessing: Raising the heat in the caves. So she, Orphan and the un-gooped cops start shoving road flares all over the cave walls and ceilings. This explains in part what Stephanie keeps in her many pockets and pouches--so many road flares.

At Blackgate, Gotham Girl lands in a superhero pose that shatters the cement beneath her, accompanied by the sound effect GA-THOOM. That is the sound of Gotham Girl smash-landing on cement: "GA-THOOM." What does she find there? Dog-sized creatures that look a bit like giant toads crossed with superman villain Doomsday, attaching themselves to the shoulders and heads of inmates and snaking their long, gross Venom tongues down around them. These are the things apparently hatching out of the huge, gross egg-sack that Monster #3 drags behind it. Nightwing arrives and tries to talk Gotham Girl down a bit, suggesting that maybe tearing the monster to pieces isn't the best course of action, but she basically goes into berserker mode and tearing through the monster's egg sac and then just ripping and ripping and ripping in one of the grossest sequences I've seen in a long time: She and Nightwing are just covered in dead monster gore by the time she's done.
As for the Bats, they are still motorcycle-fighting Monster #2, which continues to grow heads along its long neck. By the end of this issue, it's up to five heads, the topmost of which SPLURTs out a huge knife-shaped horn somewhat reminiscent of Gamera's goofiest-looking opponent, Guiron. They call Nightwing to check in on him and Gotham Girl, but they get no response: Nightwing can't come to the Bat-radio right now, because he's too busy being transformed by the monster blood and guts into a monster himself! Both he and Gotham Girl are turning into monsters, and, in Dick's case, ironically so, as his new monster form is that of a half-bird, half-bat creature.

Batman #8 ("Night of The Monster Men," Pt. 4) by writers Steve Orlando and Tom King and artist Riley Rossmo

The five-headed, building-sized Monster #2 has taken flight, and Batman is still crouched atop his motorcycle, which is attached to the monster by a grappling hook. That's right, he and Batwoman are still fighting the five-headed, blade-horned furry pteradon-esque creature. Surely at this point a call to Superman wouldn't be out of the question, right? He could be in Gotham knocking that thing out and back in Metropolis in less than a minute. I'm sure it would be no trouble at all!

After another quick recap of who is where, the increasingly eager to join the fight Duke reveals to Batman that he and Alfred have discovered what it was that created the monsters: A super-steroid with notable similarities to Venom, the super-steroid that Bane used to take to get super-jacked (and Batman was briefly addicted to, pre-reboot).

Nightwing and Gotham Girl, both mutated into monsters--albeit human-sized ones--by the viscera of Monster #3, both arrive on the scene for some more fighting. Batwoman keeps them busy while Batman finishes off the kaiju via a judicious application of electricity, and joins Batwoman by popping a wheelie and slapping Gotham Girl across the face with it. Oh, that Batman!
That's actually just the first of the cool tricks he tries out here, including wearing Clayface as a big suit of battle armor to go hand-to-hand with Gotham Girl.

It's not enough though, and the day isn't saved until Duke Thomas arrives on the scene with a monster cure in a giant syringe, which he pokes G.G. with. Meanwhile, Batwoman and the monster-ized Nightwing fight in the sky and, outside of town, Spoiler's gambit with all the road flares worked, and the red goop making the Gothamites act all crazy melts off them, forms a river of black goop, and streams out of the cave, where it transforms into Monster #4, the biggest, scariest of the monsters so far.
It's humanoid in shape, but with four long arms, and a body that looks a little like a robe, with a long, dangling red veil. Sprouting from its shoulders are a pair of huge trees with red leaves.

Again, Paquette's cover really rather sells the monster short. With giant monsters, it's all about scale guys...although I suppose it's understandable that the artist might want to focus on the human-sized hero whose name is on the book in the cover image rather than on his titanic opponents.

Nightwing #6 ("Night of The Monster Men," Pt. 5) by writers Steve Orlando and Tim Seeley and artist Roge Antonio

Batwoman and the de-monsterized Gotham Girl manage to administer Duke's de-monstrification serum to Nightwing by the former essentially roping and riding the mutated Nightwing into the syringe the latter was holding up. Nightwing pukes up a bunch of monster juice, and is back to his old self, only missing his mask and a few small pieces of his shirt. Really, he could have stood to lose his entire shirt. I mean, don't you guys want to sell comics, DC? Then lets get Dick Grayson more shirtless more often!

Monster #4, the last of the Monster Men People, strides towards downtown Gotham, scooping up a train car in one of its massive hands. Ah, giant monsters and trains! A classic combination.

Spoiler and Orphan arrive in a station wagon (?) to join the rest of the Bat-squad, just in time to dodge the train engine the latest monster chucks at them. Nightwing takes Spoiler to the top of a Wayne Tower, where she plugs her...super-computer staff?...into the floor and she and Nightwing start reviewing various clues regarding Hugo Strange's whereabouts on the Iron Man: The Movie like hard-light computers it projects...?
Again, I'm not sure how or why Spoiler is fucking Oracle all of a sudden, but I don't really like this new, hyper-competent version of a character whose original charm came from the fact that she was an extremely willful amateur with more heart and guts than actual skills. I suppose this is just the way James Tynion IV, Scott Snyder and other Bat-writers and editors decide to characterize her post-reboot, but for someone who has been reading her for a very long time, it sure feels off, like she was absorbing Tim Drake's mad computer skills through his kisses or something.

By way of explaining how she's able to crack encryptions in a matter of seconds and follow a money trail involving the Monster Venom and the facilities to process it, she tells Nightwing, "I'm The Cluemaster's daughter, Dick." Um, yeah, exactly my point, Steph.

Meanwhile, Dick watches a few seconds of recorded sessions between Strange and the four patients of his that he ended up turning into his Monster People, showing no respect for patient doctor privilege. Those few seconds are enough for Dick to boil each patient's diagnosis down to a single word--Manipulator, Fear, Grief and Child. He's starting to put it together.

The monster knows what they are up to, and starts scaling the tower to get to them, so Batman must activate the Wayne Watchtowers. Is this where one of his buildings transforms into a giant monster-fighting robot? No, sadly nothing that dramatic. The activation does apparently knock all power out of the city and then maybe divert it to the building or something, as it heats up and sets the monster on fire or something with a "SCHWUFF" as Spoiler and Nightwing jump to safety, Strange's location uncovered just in time.

So that's all four monsters down and out, has The Night of The Monster People ended so soon, with a whole issue yet to go?

Ha, Batman and friends wish!

No, the "dead" monsters have all been linking some kind of pink goo that has been gradually sliming its way together, forming an even bigger monster than the biggest of the first four. This final monster isn't too sensational of a design; he looks a little like Spider-Man villain The Rhino, but with a giant Sarlacc Pit mouth for a face.
So this is the climax: One final, big-ass monster for Batman's team to fight while he goes to face Strange. As he's about to go, Nightwing tells Batman what he's figured out about Strange's plan. They monsters aren't just monsters, but they are a statement. People wrestling with childhood trauma, facing grief and fear and manipulating others around them, all of them combining into one, single monster. The Monsters are, Nightwing says, Strange's diagnosis of Batman.

So Batman does the sensible thing: He calls The Justice League and asks them to come take care of this monster for him while he and his team go beat the crap out of Strange.

No, I'm just playing. He tells his team to use The Watchtowers--special fortified buildings bristling with high-tech weaponry that Batman built after Darkseid's "Year One" invasion--while he goes to fight Strange himself. On the final splash page, we finally see Strange again. He is not nude, but he is wearing a Batman suit. Not the cape and cowl, just the suit from, like, the neck down. Which is really too bad, because I'd love to see what he would look like wearing the cowl. Like, it's hard to imagine a Batman with a beard and glasses, isn't it?

And that's the final page of the penultimate chapter of "Night of The Monster Men"...! Just one more issue to go!

Detective Comics #942 ("Night of The Monster Men," Pt. 6) by writers Steve Orlando and artist Andy MacDonald

This is page four of this comic book, in its entirety:

That totally looks like they are all jumping into their own individual robot lions or vehicles or Megazords or whatever, and they are totally going to combine them to form a giant robot, right? I mean, everything about that page, right?

I found the third tier the most intriguing, because it shows that each of the four Watchtowers is apparently programmed with a particular symbol for a particular member of Batman's Bat-squad to light up on its side. I have to imagine those symbols change depending on who is in the individual towers' cockpits, as it's really hard to imagine that Batman had a tower all set up for Spoiler and Orphan, neither of whom even really have symbols, but not ones for Robin, Red Robin, Red Hood or Batgirl.

As for the symbols, the girls have some terrible ones. Spoiler's icon is...a pink "O"...? Not even an "S" for Spoiler? Or something, anything, purple? And Orphan, whose name does begin with the letter "O" gets, what, a hashmark indicating five? A symbol representative of the stitching over the mouth of her current, dumb mask? That's kinda dumb.

A friend of mine pointed out to me that Orphan's symbol looks a little like a crudely drawn, hobo version of the bat-symbol--imagine the little lines in the middle as its ears and two of the lower points on the serrated bottom of the traditional bat-symbol, and the two larger lines on the edges as the largest points of the wings--which kind of works for Cassandra Cain.

Damn I wish she'd hurry up and re-adopt the name Black Bat and a better, more bat-like costume...

Batman arrives in Hugo Strange's penthouse hideout to confront him, and Strange is an all-around amazing decorator! The walls have all these weird, Batman-specific medical charts. Like, there will be a profile of Batman's head, with the mask and skull cut away to reveal Batman's brain, and then all these little (unfortunately illegible) scribbled notes and lines, pointing to which part of Batman's brain thinks about what (Justice? Bat-shapes? Vengeance? Black? His mom's pearls?). There's even a Vitruvian Man, only with Batman in it--so, a Vitruvian Batman, I guess. It's like Strange took a bunch of medical textbooks, and then drew Batman costumes on all the figures.

These are plastered everywhere on the walls, while Strange himself sits atop a throne of psychology books (My favorite title? "Crazy People"), some thick, sticky substance along the bottom (I would assume it's that red stuff that Monster #3 leaked to make people crazy.

Before Batman can strike across the room and punch out Strange, the doctor warns him that he's wearing a "suicide suit," and therefore if Batman strikes him at all, it will kill him, breaking one of Batman's cardinal rules about crime-fighting. They begin their long talk about Batman's psychology, which essentially amounts to Strange's belief that Batman's mental health issues are flaws that make him a weaker crime-fighter, whereas Batman believes they are actually strengths, or at least he's been able to master them and turn them into strengths, which help make him a better crime fighter. Guess who's right?

Meanwhile, the watchtowers prove to not be able to transform into robots. Rather, they are just kitted out with a bunch of laser guns and giant harpoons and stuff like that. These are enough to temporarily stop the monster, but not enough to do so permanently. And this monster's hide is so tough that the giant syringe of monster cure won't pierce its hide. What are they to do? Spoiler alert: Nightwing run across one of the harpoon lines anchoring the monster in place, dives into its open mouth and administers the cure to its softer insides, causing it to vomit him out. And keep vomitting. Re-reading it now, it looks like the monster may actually have vomited itself out through it's mouth, if that makes any sense.

And back to the Batman vs. Strange battle, the latter talks himself into unconsciousness, as Batman secretly brought back-up with him. Clayface blanketed the top few floors of the building with his own malleable body, completely sealing the flow of air into the room. Apparently, Batman can just go without air a lot longer than Strange, who passed out during his speechifying. (It here occurred to me that this particular move was a very Plastic Man-like move, and made me reevaluate Clayface's role on the team. I wondered if at some point Tynion hadn't considered using Plas or Metamorpho or maybe eve Elongated Man in the book, but either changed his mind or had it changed for him by DC; it would explain Clayface's presence, given that as a villain who has pretty much never shown a "good" side before he is a definite odd one out on this Bat-squad team of Tynion's Detective.

And then, after all give giant monsters have been defeated by Clayface, Gotham Girl and a half-dozen physically fit people with masks and capes but no powers, guess who shows up? The Justice League has the gall to arrive to help with clean-up. Yeah Green Lanterns, that's cool you guys can use your power rings--the so called "most powerful weapons in the universe"--to lift and move rubble, but where you a few pages ago? You couldn't have been using those rings to beat up Godzillas with giant boxing gloves!
(By the way, one of the things I don't like about the new Cyborg is his undefined, apparently limitless powers. Like, what's he doing there? I thought he just shot sonic weaponry out of his hand-cannon things, but here he's apparently lifting girders and masonry as if he had a blue-tinted Green Lantern ring. I love that The Flash, The Fastest Man Alive, is literally just standing there next to him though. What's Flash doing exactly, supervising? )

On the final pages, we see Bruce Wayne and Kate Kane in a cemetery, remarking on the headstones erected for the four victims that Strange used to make his monsters, which an anonymous donor paid for (I bet you five dollars it was Bruce Wayne; no, ten dollars!). They talk to one another in a brief conversation meant to set up future storylines. When Kate asks Bruce if Strange was sent to Arkham, he says no, but "somewhere...better equipped for his mind." (Hm, maybe Bruce Wayne bought Oolong Island?). He also said that Strange's Venom was given to him by Bane, in exchange for the Psycho-Pirate, and that he's "not waiting to find out" why. If you've been reading Tom King's Batman, you already know why, because that storyline, "I Am Suicide," just ended.

Batman further tells Kate that SHIELD ARGUS has "pulled eminent domain" and built a big research facility around the mostly-vomit body of the final monster, and since the monster goop can be weaponized, it "bears...watching." This will apparently be followed up on in Tynion's Detective and the upcoming Batwoman book.

And that is that.


********************

Since DC re-relaunched Batman last year, they have been having Tim Sale providing variant covers for the series. I personally find this kind of ridiculous, as Sale's covers are almost always superior to those of the "regular" artists and, while I continue to not understand the specific economics of variant cover sales, it always seemed more logical to me to pay one artist to draw a single cover for a single issue of a comic, rather than paying two or more to provide multiple covers for the same damn book.

Anyway, as I've stated repeatedly above, Paquette's "regular" covers may have included pretty decent images of Batman, Batwoman and Nightwing, they usually failed to depict the monsters in any way that demonstrated their size and/or scariness. That was definitely not the case with Sale's variants, the first and fourth of those below.

As you can see, he makes the monsters look huge, while also putting Batman at the center of the action, and he does so using some fairly basic visual tricks. The Nightwing variants are penciled by Ivan Reis (the second and fifth of the images below), and Rafael Albuquerque drew the Detective variants (the third and the sixth).

Overall, Albuquerque and Sale do the best job of making the giant monsters look like giant monsters; Reis' images aren't really all that fair to compare to Paquette's on that score, as the monsters he draws are more less human-sized.

Anyway, for comparison's sake, here are what the other artists involved in drawing the Monster People came up with:






Saturday, January 07, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: January 4th

Batman #14 (DC Comics) Regular writer Tom King is joined by guest artist Mitch Gerards for the first of a two-part "I Am Suicide" epilogue story. Catwoman was on Batman's unofficial Suicide Squad, and her payment for her assistance in retrieving The Psycho-Pirate is that her sentence has been commuted from death to life without parole, and she'll be locked up forever not in Arkham, where he found her at the beginning of the last arc, but in Blackgate (Why they would be keeping someone sentenced to death in an insane asylum where none of the inmates are ever sent to be executed, I don't know; "Because Gotham City," I suppose, or otherwise The Joker, Scarecrow, Two-Face, Mad Hatter, Harley Quinn any anyone else who have killed double-to-triple-digits of people in terrorist attacks would be either killed in drone attacks or sent to Guantanamo).

Batman wants more, he wants to exonerate her for the 100+ murders she's been charged with (I don't know, it was mentioned but not explained in the previous arc), and she wants more, too--she wants one last night of freedom on the rooftops of Gotham with Batman, doing whatever they want.

He, of course, wants to fight super-crime. So much of the issue allows for King to parade a bunch of minor villains, many of them being reintroduced for the first time in the current continuity here: Magpie, Signal Man, The Gorilla Boss (of Gotham City), The Ten-Eyed Man, Copperhead, Amygdala, King Snake, Condiment King, The Cavalier, Zerbra Man, Film Freak and The Mad Monk. Also appearing are Kite Man, which I'm afraid I have to call bullshit on. I know King is a little obsessed with Kite Man, and that's cool; hell, it's endearing, and I would certainly look forward to a Kite Man story arc in the future. But he just showed us Kite Man locked up in Arkham at the beginning of "I Am Suicide"; that was, what, days ago? I also need to call bullshit on The Clock King. He appears here, in a redesigned version of his Batman: The Animated Series look. Which is completely different than that of the "classic" Clock King look he sported in Deathstroke a few weeks back. Oh, and Deathstroke totally killed him. Unless there are two Clock Kings, but really, how many Clock Kings does a single comics line need?

As for Catwoman, she would rather just have sex with Batman, and they do. She spreads out a bed of diamonds on some filthy Gotham rooftop and they take off their costumes (in defiance to Frank Miller's repeated insistence that superhero sex is better with the costumes on, and that weird scene on the last page of 2011's Catwoman #1 where Batman and Catwoman had fully-clothed sex). Now, I have never had sex on a bagful of diamonds scattered atop a rooftop. Hell, I've never accidentally sat on a diamond, naked or clothed, so I can't be certain, but I always imagined that diamonds are hard and pointy, and thus I can't imagine that would be the most comfortable way to do it.

It's a pretty nicely written story, and a better exploration of this particular relationship than other stories about it of late. Gerads handles pencils, inks and colors, and while his style is not to my particular taste--it's a little too realistic--I feel silly voicing any objections about the artwork in Batman, given that one of the two regular artists is David Finch (He drew the initial story arc "I Am Gotham," and is returning for the next one, "I Am Bane"), and he is pretty much the worst person to draw a Batman comic in maybe...ever?

The double-page splash is very well handled, as is the sex scene (again, compared to that one in Catwoman #1). The sequence on page 12 though, where Batman takes on Cavalier, Zebra Man, Film Freak and Mad Monk in four consecutive horizontal panels? That didn't work for me at all. The setting remained the same in all four panels, and Batman fights his way across that setting, from left to right, while Catwoman stands stationary at the very end, continuing a conversation from panel to panel, suggesting it's all happening in a matter of seconds. But the villains appear and disappear in each panel. That is, Batman kicks The Cavalier in the first panel, and the other three villains aren't right there behind Cavalier. Then, in the next panel, Batman is kicking Zebra Man, and the presumably now unconscious Cavalier is no longer there, not lying behind Batman. It...doesn't work at all, and I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the page, trying to make sense of the story it was trying to tell.

So, all in all, this was maybe the very definition of a mediocre Batman issue in this particular run. Not as good, visually or in terms of script, let alone both, as "I Am Suicide" or the "I Am Gotham" epilogue issue (penciled by Ivan Reis), but better than the opening arc "I Am Gotham").

The cover is by Stephanie Hans, so it's representative of the content of the story, if not the style of the art within. Stephanie Hans is a woman and not a man, so I really think DC should consider moving her to Batman interiors. Because of that whole there's-never-been-a-female-artist-on-a-Batman-book thing. Hans wouldn't be my first choice to correct that unfortunate pattern, but if she's drawing the cover, then one assumes editor Mark Doyle likes her work okay and already has her contact info. And since David Finch is one of the two regular artists on Batman right now, it's not like DC cares who's drawing Batman at all, so why not let Hans or a female artists take over for Finch? Or, you know, anyone?

DC Comics Bombshells #21 (DC) For this books frankly much longer than I imagine anyone might have guessed run, Ant Luca has been providing the covers. Why? Luca is the artist who designed the original DC Comic Bombshells statuettes that this series is based on...or at least inspired by. This issue features a cover by Marguerite Sauvage, however, a too-infrequent contributor to the book who has drawn some of its best passages to date. Hopefully she'll stay on cover duty; that way Bomshells readers will get at least one image per issue from her.

If you're not reading this book, I would cajole you give it a shot. It's basically an all-lesbian remake of All-Star Squadron, except not really. In the current story arc, writer Marguerite Bennett has sent a team of Bombshells--Batwoman, Catwoman and Renee Montoya--to join Vixen and her more-than-likely girlfriend Hawkgirl in Vixen's kingdom of Zambesi. They are there to beat the Nazis to some sort of secret, ancient super-weapon, which turn out to be monstrous, metal versions of various representatives of African fauna, all of whom can speak and consider themselves gods.

In this issue, drawn by Mirka Andolfo, Richard Ortiz and Laura Braga, Barbara Minerva allies herself with these monster gods and delivers them to her mistress, Baroness Paula Von Ghunther. Gadgeteer Hawkgirl builds her team "an animal-unaffiliated-mobile" that looks an awful lot like a Batmobile (there are two pointy fins atop it reminiscent of Batman's cowl). Each claims it for their own species. "Fox," Vixen says. "Bat," Batwoman says. "Cat," Catwoman says. "Or, y'know, Hawk," Hawkgirl throws in.

I think given its current gray color, Batwoman and Catwoman have the strongest claim; however a red paint job could seal the deal for Vixen. I can't really get Hawk out of it though, Hawkgirl; maybe a paint job and some feather decals on the fins atop it to make them look like the wings on the Hawks' helmets...?

The ongoing, present-day action is broken up by the origin of Minerva, explaining how she came to be a soldier of fortune working for Von Gunther, but it looks like her origin is ongoing, and she's about to get a redesign to make her look more like the Modern Age Minerva than she currently does (so far, she's just been rocking generic Safari garb with an animal print belt and sometimes visible boustier).

Because this book never credits which artist drew which section, I'm not 100% positive who is responsible for a few of the glitches in this issue, where in the images drawn clearly don't reflect what the text says, but there are a noticeable amount of them. On page three, Hawkgirl tells Vixen the tail she just ripped off of a mechanical cheetah regenerated while the image shows that is definitely not the case. Hawkgirl gives Vixen a pair of boots to wear so she won't continue the adventure in high heels (as Catwoman does), but every drawing of Vixen afterwards still shows her in the heels, not the boots. There appears to be the butt of a rifle sticking out of the mouth of a hanged man in one panel, but the angle of the head is wrong, if the intent was to show that his killer shoved the rifle down his throat (if she broke it in half and then did so, well that's not clear).

Am I nitpicking? Sure. But then, that's what I do.

Nightwing #12 (DC) Poor Orca. Created during Larry Hama and Scott McDaniel's millennial run on Batman, during a time in which Batman was meant to be the book that focused on Batman-as-superhero, she was pretty maligned at the time as a pretty lame Batman character--that entire run, regardless of sales, doesn't have a particularly good reputation (Batman took on Orca, for example, by donning a special Bat-scuba suit that made him resemble an ancillary figure from a Batman toy line).

From there, Orca only appeared briefly in Joker's Last Laugh, during a scene where several of the "sea monster" type characters are released from their cells in supervillain prison The Slab, and then turned up dead in James Robinson's not very good "One Year Later" story arc, "Face The Face."

But thanks to the magic of rebooting, she's alive again! After being name-dropped in the initial All-Star Batman story arc ("My Own Worst Enemy"; buy it in trade if you missed it, as it is awesome), she is now appearing in Nightwing.

This current story arc finds her in her Orca form--initially she cold switch back and forth between paralyzed marine biologist Dr. Grace Balin and the monstrous Orca--and working as muscle in Bludhaven, which in the "Rebirth" era is essentially a crime-ridden analogue to Atlantic City, where various '90s and millennial Gotham-based villains end up when they want to turn their lives around (and, one presumes, quite getting beat up by Batman).

As drawn by artist Marcus To, she looks much bigger and more muscular than she did in her initial Scott McDaniel design. In truth, she should be a pretty terrible threat to Batman and his allies, as she is basically a sort of were-killer whale now. So imagine Killer Croc or King Shark, only instead of having strength and "powers" similar to crocodiles or Great White sharks, she would/should have strength and powers similar to a killer whale*, and they are bigger and more deadly than either.**

Nightwing wins his fight with her, of course, but he gets some help in the form of The Run-Offs, reforming supervillains like Mouse, Giz, Stallion and Thrill Devil (I hope writer Tim Seeley is writing Chuck Dixon, who co-created all these guys, thank you notes twice a month). Also, like the rest of The Run-Offs, her heart doesn't really seem to be in crime these days.

That's kind of too bad, in that I like the idea of Bludhaven, a sort of Gotham Jr., under the protection of Nightwing, a sort of Batman Jr., being full of junior versions of Gotham City's villains, but then, I also like the idea of Nightwing being the sort of friendly vigilante who believes in reforming villains instead of just beating them within an inch of their lives and throwing them in the least effective mental health facility in the world.

As I said the other day, I'm really digging the current story arc. I like To's art an awful lot, and, with Nightwing back in Bludhaven and crossing paths with the sorts of villains that Dixon wrote back when he was writing Nightwing, this is the first time Nightwing has felt like the old Nightwing in a very long time.

Superman #14 (DC) I was a little disappointed to see that neither of the regular pencil artists on this book, Patrick Gleason or Doug Mahnke would be drawing this issue. Not only are they both great artists (and Gleason the book's co-writer, with Peter Tomasi), but their art is pretty compatible in terms of style and tone, and that's something that can't be said of all of the rotating art teams on DC's bi-monthly books (see, for example, Batman, complained about above).

The artist here isn't a bad one, though; it's Ivan Reis, teamed with Joe Prado. They are also a damn appropriate art team, given this new story arc's guest-stars: Justice League Incarnate, the superhero team composed of heroes from various parallel Earth's that was at the center of the Grant Morrison-written Multiversity. Reis and Prado drew the bookend issues.

Here "our" Superman encounters Red Son Superman, who is on the run from some vague, kinda generic-looking alien army traveling the Multiverse collecting each Earth's Superman. They are on Earth-0 not for the Superman who stars in this book, but for Kenan Kong, the New Super-Man from New Super-Man (Earth-0's Superman is dead, remember, and this Superman is the Superman from a previous iteration of Earth-0, prior to the Dark Trinity of Pandora, Doctor Manhattan and Geoff Johns rebootifying of it).

Anyway, here's a team-up between Superman and Justice League Incarnate to rescue New-Superman and at least a dozen other Supermen, including Captain Carrot, who this implies is the Superman of his Earth. Given how individual a talent Morrison is and how difficult it is to follow him, I'd normally be worried about this arc, but Tomasi, Gleason, Reis, Prado and company pulled this first chapter off just fine, and Tomasi and Gleason have already teamed Superman up with the Morrison/Mahnke Frankenstein, Garth Ennis and John McCrea's Hacken from Hitman and a survivor from an early chapter of Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier, so in about six months worth of their book, they have managed to pretty successfully reference and riff on other disparate DC stories from some of the publisher's most distinct creative teams, so hell, if anyone can pull it off...

Aditionally, it's just plain neat to see characters like President Superman and the Green Lantern-who-is-also-The Demon again, and I'm really looking forward to the first meetings between Superman and Kenan Kong. It was reading this issue that I realized one of the things that is so appealing about Kenan: He is basically the 21st century answer to the Superboy of the '90s.



*Hey, want to hear my pitch for a Predator comic? Okay, it goes like this. There's this one, particularly old and experienced Predator who has been visiting Earth on hunting trips for pretty much ever and has killed all sorts of bad-ass human beings. He's pretty jaded about the whole experience, really. He human beings like to talk about how we're "the most dangerous game" but really, we're damn easy to kill. You have to get a pretty large group of us together and arm us pretty well to really prove a challenge to a Predator alien, unless the human in question is, say, Dutch, Dutch's brother or Batman. So this predator learns that there's actually a predatory mammal that can reach lengths of up to 30 feet and weights of up to six tons, and, if that wasn't formidable enough, it lives in the water, often in the most inhospitable place on Earth for the Predator aliens: The frozen north. Intrigued, this particular Predator abandons humans and sets out to be the first of his kind to kill an orca. Along the way he comes into combat with other formidable creatures of the arctic and, when he finally does battle with an orca, he finds he is unable to remove the skull as a trophy due to its size and the fact that it sinks. His fellows don't believe him. So he must return to try again, and this time he perishes while trying to remove the skull from the dead and sinking whale. It would have no words except alien clicking and whale noises, and basically be the Moby Dick of Predator comics...by which I mean it will be really, really fucking long.


**Say, did you ever see 1977 movie Orca? Much scarier than jaws, as the sea-going predator in the title is basically like Jaws if Jaws was a bit bigger and also a brilliant strategist. Like, the shark in Jaws would eat you if he could get to you, but the orca in Orca would find a way to trick you into coming to him. He would cut your brake lines so you would get in a car accident on your way to work and if anyone suspected foul play, they surely wouldn't expect that it was a whale that did it. Don't fuck with orcas, I believe was the moral of the film.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Briefly on The Atom's glasses and Ohio's Avenger (plus a few links)

I reluctantly started wearing glasses around the time I turned 30, when I finally realized that my eyesight was getting bad. It was a pretty big adjustment, and it took me a long while to get used to the way I looked in them (on the positive side, I feel they made me a lot easier to draw). It also took some getting used to the fact that I had to keep track of them at all times and that, once you take them off and absently set them somewhere, they could be really, really hard to find, given that you need to be wearing them to successfully accomplish many eye-related activities, like, say, looking for your glasses.

That said, I never considered getting Lasik or any kind of eye surgery, because Jesus, shooting lasers into your eyes? Contacts were also out, because the idea of touching my eyeballs a few times a day seemed incredibly unappealing to me.

You know what else sounds unappealing to me? Using cutting-edge, experimental technology in order to shrink down to a few inches high, or even down to a microscopic level, and having extremely dangerous adventures. In fact, I would get contacts or even have a doctor should me directly in the eye with a laser beam in order to burn it in such a way to improve my vision than shrink.

What I'm trying to here is I just can't figure out why The Atom Ryan Choi is wearing glasses on that cover. What if he loses his glasses when he's fighting a bug or an amoeba? Can you imagine how hard it will be to find your glasses if you need a microscope (in addition to your glasses), in order to see them? If you're going to be a shrinking super-hero and you don't have 20/20 vision, for God's sake, you gotta get contacts or have surgery!

Now, you may be looking at that picture above and thinking, "But Caleb, he's wearing his glasses under his dumb-looking astronaut helmet, which they are apparently making him wear because Bryan Routh wears a similar dumb-looking get-up on the CW shows, so even though the Silver Age Atom costume is one of, like, three perfect superhero costumes, he has to wear that for corporate synergy, wait what was I talking about? Oh yeah! He's wearing his glasses under his mask, so if they fall off, they will at least be contained within his helmet."

To which I would respond, "Wow, you talk just like I write! Oh, and also, how annoying would that be if you were fighting a bug or an amoeba and your glasses fell off and then they were rattling around your helmet? You'd have to open your face plate up and stick your hand in to put them back on your face and by that time you could be bug or amoeba food!"

Anyway, I hate that costume. And as much as I like The Atom Ray Palmer and The Atom Ryan Choi, The New 52 all but destroyed those guys. I mean, can you make sense of The Atom history now? (Remember, his Earth-3 doppelganger existed before him and was on the Justice League and OH MY GOD I JUST REMEMBERED FUTURES END!)

Hey, remember in 2013 when DC launched a new Justice League of America "ongoing" monthly series (that they canceled after 14 issues, consisting entirely of a "Trinity War" lead-in story, a few chapters of a "Trinity War" crossover story and a Forever Evil tie-in story)...? Remember they had some 50-ish variant covers, in which a handful of these new Justice Leaguers were depicted raising a flag, -style on the cover, and there was a different cover for each of the 50 state flags?

Man, that was dumb.*

Marvel made fun of DC at the time, publishing a Deadpool variant cover featuring all 50 state birds...and a lot of bird poop.

Well now a few years later, Marvel is launching a new Avengers book entitled U.S.Avengers, for which they are publishing over 50 variant covers, 50 of them being state-specific images featuring an Avenger character over a background including an image of the state.

Ohio got Black Knight. Why? I don't know. I asked my local comics shop, and was informed they are, for the most part, completely random. Which, of course, they would almost half to be, as, what, 95% of the Marvel superheroes you can think of are based either in New York City or some fictional setting, like Atlantis or Wakanda or wherever?

There are a few that certainly make sense, of course, like Ms. Marvel repping New Jersey, or the current Ant-Man getting Florida. Some heroes are attached to states that make some historical sense, like, say, Thor (Odinson flavor) on an Okalahoma cover, and I don't know who is on the cover for California, but Daredevil, or Iron Man or Lady Hawkguy or any of the West Coast Avengers or Champions would work.

But man, imagine how deep they would have to dig to match an Avenger--or just a superhero of any kind--to a every single state.

I'm a little disappointed they didn't do that digging though; I remember being pretty bummed out after (the first) Civil War ended and Tony Stark unveiled his "Fifty State Initiative" in which every single state was said to have been assigned its own team of Avengers, and we never, ever got to see what the make-up of many of those teams actually was. Like, I really wanted to know who was on The Ohio Avengers, and never found out.

Anyway, giving us The (a?) Black Knight at random is pretty weak. Why not Howard The Duck, who was a long-time Clevelander? Or that new Inhuman character Ulysses from (the second) Civil War, who I understand was going to school at Ohio State Universeity when he became...Inhumanized...? Or...wait, that's all I can think of. Ohio has an entry in Marvel's own wikia, but it doesn't really mention any heroes who live here or were born here. Maybe a Great Lakes Avenger?

As long as I'm just typing a few random bits of nonsense, here are links to some comics I reviewed elsewhere recently: Steven Weissman's Looking For America's Dog, Box Brown's Tetris and Mariko Tamaki, Joelle Jones and Sandu Florea's Supergirl: Being Super.



*Not that I didn't buy the Ohio state flag variant though, because of course I did.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Some picture books of note:

Are We There, Yeti? (Simon & Schuster*; 2015): This debut picture book from artist Ashlyn Anstee is one more in the ever increasing number of books for children featuring yeti, bigfoot, sasquatch and other hairy humanoids of their ilk. The title and cover image layout the entire story, which hangs on the squishing together of the phrase "Are we there yet?" with the yeti, and Anstee accomplishes this by having a yeti be the driver of small children.

"This is Yeti," Anstee introduces us to Yeti on the first page, and the large, white, roughly man-shaped creatures waves hello. "He drives our bus," reads the next page, as we see Yeti striding toward a tiny, round school bus with a half-dozen children and a teacher or chaperone already aboard.

When they ask where they are going, Yeti only says that it is a surprise, and so begins a 16-page drive through various settings–city, beach, mountains–populated by an Akira Toriyama-like mixture of people, anthropomorphic animals and regular animals, each illustration fairly packed with funny little details for readers to tease out.

The entire way, the children ask the titular question, until about the halfway point of the book, when they arrive at a remote cave in a snowy environment. Where are they? Based on the squat, child-sized Yeti-like creatures that come out of the cave, it would appear they are either at a yeti school or else at Yeti's own home, playing with his own children.

Anstee finds several other places in which to swap in "Yeti" for "yet," and that pleasant enough joke is able to sustain the short story, and give her an opportunity to draw and paint fun stuff, like the not-so-abominable snowmen and dogs wearing shorts at the beach and a tree sloth piloting a biplane over a mountain while llamas look on.

Anstee works in animation, and it is apparent from the energy that permeates her drawings, and the dynamic sense of motion in them, as well as the super-simple, studiously cartoonish designs.

Dinosaur Christmas (Scholastic; 2011): Writer Jerry Pallotta and artist Howard McWilliam have seemingly attempted to construct a two-great-things-that-go-great-together type of book, by adding dinosaurs and Christmas together and seeing how that might work out.

Not too terribly well, really.

The book is premised on Santa Claus' extensive answer to a question on a post card from a little girl: "Dear Santa, What did you use to pull your sleigh before you had reindeer?"

The answer is, you guessed it, dinosaurs.

Now as all of us who are not creationists know, human beings and dinosaurs never co-existed. The last of the dinosaurs were extinct a good 65 million years or so before the first human-like primates started getting up and walking around on their hind legs, and there was absolutely no crossover–give or take a Mokele-mbembe or ropen. So if you want to think about this, this picture book is going to demand some difficult questions of you.

Is Santa Claus human, and, if so, how is it that he existed so many tens of millions of years before the rest of his species? If not, why does he so closely resemble humanity, and is it merely a coincidence that humankind would evolve to so closely resemble Santa Claus?

If Santa Claus is not human, what exactly is this immortal, unchanging being? Is he God, or a god? Is he an angel of some sort, created by God in his image, in the same way that man and woman would be so many years later?

What was his function back then? We see that he's dressed as he always is. What tiny mammals did he skin to create that fur-trim on his coat, I wonder, and how many did it take to do it? What type of skin was used to create the leather of his boots and belt? And did he invent eye-glasses? Apparently so. Perhaps Santa Claus was some sort of Promethean figure, a semi-divine go-between that brought culture to humanity, millions upon millions of years after he was around, tying various species of dinosaurs to his sleigh.

We see too that Santa lives somewhere snowy, in a wooden house, with electric lamps and lights and a Christmas tree, as well as a phonagram and wrapping paper and bells. So many piece of modern technology, created and employed by Santa long before mammals had crawled out from under the shadows of the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth!

I am not entirely sure pine trees existed at this point, although I am 100% definitely sure that Christmas–from the Old English words for "Christ" and "mass"–didn't exist yet. Hell, Christ didn't exist yet! Well, he did according to the Gospel of John–"In the beginning there was the Word, and the World was with God, and the Word was God"–but whatever your personal beliefs regarding the divinity of the man named Jesus who was revered as the Christ and put the Christ in Christianity, he didn't walk the Earth until the so-called Common Era. We used to divide time by when Jesus came onto the scene–Before Christ and Anno Domini, "The Year of Our Lord"–and clearly Christ wasn't around 65 million years B.C.

And remember, what did Santa Claus use these dinosaurs for? Why, to pull his sleigh of course. And why did he need his sleigh pulled? To deliver presents. But to whom? There are no human beings seen in the illustrations, although there is an intriguing spread showing a pair of Apatosaurus delivering gifts, one of them to a cave built high in a cliff wall and decorated with a mail box, Christmas tree, wreath, Christmas lights and a lamp. Did humans live within, or some other sort of Christmas-celebrating, gift-appreciating creature, perhaps of the same nature as Santa himself?

So many questions.

The bulk of Pallotta's story consists of Santa telling the little girl–and through her the reader–all of the various types of dinosaurs he had attempted to pull his sleigh over the years, each of which proved problematic in one fashion or another: The Pterosaurs (which aren't dinosaurs, I know) flew too high, the Velocirapters wouldn't stop fidgeting and slashing at one another, the Triceratops were too slow.

There is no element of danger in Santa's dealings with the dinosaurs, although Pallotta and McWilliam occasionally suggest it, only to then immediately deflate that suggestion, when dealing with large predators. The Giganotosaurus was too fast and the Tyrannosaurus rexes wouldn't stop licking Santa, like over-sized dogs...tasting him, perhaps?

By book's end, Santa has adopted the reindeer, although it doesn't seem to be simply because they are ideal for his purposes: "Today the dinosaurs are gone," Santa says. Gone from his gift-giving operation, or extinct? Perhaps just the former, as Santa does say he sometimes misses the good old days, and McWilliam's last picture is of Santa and many of the 14 different types of dinosaurs (or 13 plus Pterosaurs, if you insist) all peeking in the sleeping little girl's window with him.

Seems like an okay holiday book for little kids who are interested in dinosaurs. Provided the little kids in question aren't the type to ask about evolution or theology or cultural history while reading or being read to, of course.

Fall Ball (Henry Holt; 2013): This book is by Peter McCarty, the author/illustrator of a few books I've read and really loved, like Jeremy Draws a Monster, The Monster Returns and Henry In Love, plus a few other books I have never read.

There's not much to it. Some kids ride the bus home from school, they all play football for a page or two until dark, and then they all get called home. One of them, Bobby, eats a piece of pie and then watches football on TV with his parents.

And, um, that's the whole story.

It's certainly not as strong as the three other McCarty books I mentioned, and its main pleasure is in McCarty's design work and and line work. His children are all somewhat football shaped themselves; big, half-oval, egg-like heads the size of their bodies tapering into tiny little legs and tinier still feet. They've got blank, dot eyes and little noses and mouths, and little arms ending in littler hands, which seem to be in a constant state of flailing.

In fact, the children themselves all seem to float and fall like leaves throughout the book. Sometimes literally, as when the school bus goes over a hill and they seem to achieve some kind of zero G state, or when they play football or run through a giant pile of leaves.

I really like McCarty's delicate little lines, applied in a technique that looks a bit like pointilism, only with lines instead of points, as well as his use of color, with the children and many other figures all having a sort of essential, core whiteness, like that of the page, and then color is applied around the edges of them and of their accessories.

The dog, Sparky, is maybe the best example of this, as he's a white, dog-shaped blob with lines all around his edges and extremities suggesting fur and three dimensions, the only color inside those lines being on his eyes and nose.

This is by far my least favorite of McCarty's books that I've read, but even then it's a lot of fun to look at, so good is his art.

Green Lizards Vs. Red Rectangles (Scholastic; 2015): This weird-looking picture book is the work of writer/artist Steve Antony of Please, Mr. Panda fame. I was immediately attracted by the absurd title, which makes the central conflict of Dr. Seuss' The Butter Battle Book seem entirely reasonable. I mean, the green lizards are clearly sentient--the one on the cover has even put up his dukes so as to fight a red rectangle--but the red rectangles aren't, like, anthropomorphic red rectangles. They are literally just red rectangles.

"The GREEN LIZARDS and the RED RECTANGLES were at war," Antony begins his story, over an image of a bunch of little green lizards packed tightly together in a long formation, facing off against a group of red rectangles in some sort of strange battle alignment.

It was a stand-off, as the Red Rectangles were smart (a scene of the Green Lizards toppling a huge rectangle shows other rectangles arranged as dominoes, so that the last of them will fall upon the lizards from behind), but the Green Lizards were strong.

What are they fighting for? That's what a little green lizard asks at one point, only to get squashed by a big red rectangle. The fighting goes one and one until someone declares "Enough is enough," and they decide to live together in peace, via solution which explains why Antony chose rectangles as the enemies of these lizards. The colors are for contrast, of course, and while the straight, sharp lines and angles of the rectangles are in stark contrast to the wiggly, round lines of the lizards, it's the way in which a symbiotic relationship is formed that offers the real explanation.

I won't spoil it here, but it's clever and cute. It's a pretty simple idea, really, and Antony has that one idea upon which to power the whole book, but it's a strong enough idea to bear the weight. Additionally, this is the sort of story that could really only be told in this particular format--that of the picture book--which is generally a good indication of a picture book's quality.

The Happiest Book Ever! (Hyperion; 2016): Hooray, a Bob Shea book! This offering from one of my favorite kids book's authors is a fairly meta one. The cover is covered in happy things, that Shea takes an extra step further to make even happier. So, for example, there's not just cake, but dancing cake. The sun shining in the the sky? It has a new haircut and snazzy glasses. That giraffe with two ice cream cones? One is for you? (This pattern repeats inside as well; there's a cute whale, for example, but it's not just any whale, it's "a whale with good news".)

Inside, each spread features a simple face, the face of the book, on the right-hand page. It's made simply of two large dot eyes, a smaller dot nose, and a brad, red, curvy smiling pair of lips. Beneath this face, runs the book's dialogue: "Whaddya say we make this the HAPPIEST BOOK EVER?...Let's meet some of my happy, happy friends!"

On the first spread, the left page, the one facing "the book," is a blank field of black. On the next, as the book begins introducing friends, they will appear on the left page, beginning with a frog, which is just a black and white photograph of a frog, and the dancing cake seen on the cover.

The book is a little disappointed that the frog doesn't seem happier, and keeps introducing more and more happy friends, like "a Flyin' Lion" (a lion that flies, obviously) or "Waffle Turtle and syrup!" (A turtle whose body is a waffle). Book gradually gets irritated with frog's apparent lack of happiness and calls on the reader to help, asking them to tell the frog some frog jokes (available in the back) or to shake the book. Eventually, the book loses its shit, and causes the frog to leave, which annoys all the happy friends, who are significantly less happy. Can the reader, and The Book, set things right? Probably!

It's an overall cute idea, with lot of cute little throwaway gags that come in the form of happy friends, all drawn with a dashed-off sincerity that make them look almost sketch-like. The way Shea controls these incidental characters' reactions to the book and The Book are pretty damn impressive as well. Highly recommended.

Henry Hyena, Why Won't You Laugh? (Aladdin; 2015): Writer Doug Jantzen's presents a sing-songy story told in rhyming couplets about a little hyena who has stopped doing what hyenas are best known for: Constantly laughing.

It starts:
A funny thing happened today at the zoo. Young Henry Hyena began to feel blue.

Now this kind of thing is really quite rare for hyenas always laugh without care.
Jantzen's story continues, telling us of all the things hyenas laugh at, which essentially amounts to every other animal that lives in the zoo. Sometimes they laugh at the simple misfortunes of the other animals, sometimes they laugh at their own pranks pulled at the expense of the other animals and sometimes they just laugh at the way the other animals look or act.

If you study the artwork, by Jean Claude, you can see that a hyena that stops laughing at them probably isn't of very great concern to the other animals. The monkey looks pretty pissed at the hyenas, the storks look embarrassed and Claude fills in some visual gags demonstrating the hyenas' treatment of other animals, even when the words don't point it out, like one image of a hyena holding out his hand to keep a joey wearing boxing gloves at bay while it tries to take a swing at him.

Henry consults the doctor, Dr. Long, who is a giraffe–because Jantzen apparently then needed a word to rhyme with "laugh"–and appears to serve as the zoo therapist. Henry lays on the sort of chair you only see in therapists' offices in film comedies and New Yorker cartoons (I've been to a few therapists, a few psychologists and one psychiatrist, and none of them had one of those sweet reclining bed chair thingees, which might explain why I was never completely cured).

It quickly becomes clear that the reason Henry isn't laughing is that Henry, unlike his peers, isn't a huge asshole. (Or, as Dr. Long puts it, "It's not that you're sick, and you're far from a fool. You've just learned that laughing at others is cruel.") That is the moral of the story.

So Henry puts on a tie and delivers a presentation to his fellow hyenas, and suggest they maybe stop being such assholes. In the following sequence, we see the hyenas playing nicely with the other animals, being helpful and even helping atone from some of their earlier pranks (by knitting the llama a new pair of socks, after they cut holes in its previous pair of pairs).

"Being nice was really the best way to play" is a fine moral for a children's book, although I was a little unconvinced by the ending, which naturally necessitates Henry laughing again, as we are told only that "Young Henry joined in and smiled with delight as all of the animals joked throughout the night. They had so much fun and before it was through, Henry's laugh was the loudest of all at the zoo."

I guess I'd need to hear these animal jokes to see if they were really funny or not, but while it might be nice to knit socks and deliver muffins to your neighbors, it's not really funny, is it?

Claude's art is really quite nice, and was the main reason I picked the book up and brought it home...the initial hook, however, being to learn the answer to the question in the title.

The animals are all generally rather plump, with highly expressive little faces that pretty clearly convey their emotions, be they sad or happy ones. Look at the frowning face of the slightly potato-shaped Henry on the cover; that's one heartbreaking illustration of an unhappy hyena.

Given their proportions, most of Claude's animals look like toy stuffed animals, and thus are perfectly depicted for the youngest of readers. The colors are quite bright and often unlikely in their appearances. While there may be a lot of blacks, browns and yellows in the coloration of many of the animals, the plants, backgrounds and objects are full of brilliant purples, blues, greens, reds and complex colors that lean closer to pastels than primaries. Even some of the animals boast unnatural but bright and candy-like coloring, like the purple and lavender llama and the bright turquoise elephant.

I Really Like Slop! (Hyperion; 2015): It has apparently been a rather long time since I've done one of these posts, as I usually do them just infrequently enough that a new Mo Willems Elephant & Piggie book shows up in each installment. But this time, there are three Elephant & Piggie books, and this is the first of them, alphabetically speaking (Next is I Will Take A Nap!, which do not cover here. It is, predictably, very good though, and contains a neat twist).

By my count, this is Willems' seventeen-thousandth Elephant & Piggie book, and it is here he finally addresses the subject of a pig's relationship to slop. "Eating slop is part of pig culture," Piggie explains to Gerald, when she walks by him holding a steaming bowl of neon green slop, surrounded by cartoon flies.

Like all of the books in the line, this is one long scene, brilliantly comedically acted by the two cartoon characters Willems has perfectly perfected by this point in their careers.

The two pass by one another, and Gerald reacts strongly to the very smell of slop. After an extended discussion about slop, and whether or not Gerald would like to try the foul-smelling concoction or not (Best part? When Gerald quietly asks about the flies, and Piggie responds "The flies are how you know it is ripe!" and one of flies says, in a little, balloon-less bit of font, "Yeah, man!").

When Gerald responds with a very big "NO WAY!" to the prospect of eating slop, and sees how crestfallen Piggie is, he then consents to try a very, very small taste of slop, which results in him turning colors and flopping around like a gigantic fish while Piggie doesn't even seem to notice that he looks like he has been possessed by the elephants from the nightmarish "Pink Elephants on Parade" number in Dumbo ("Do you know how I get that 'old shoe' taste? Old shoes!").

One could read a moral about trying new things into the story–it's certainly there–but beyond that, Willems' main focus seems to be once again demonstrating the affection between the two characters (How much does Gerald care about Piggie? Enough to taste slop!), and, of course, the humor of the scene, which ends with a nice, unexpected punch line.

I'll Wait, Mr. Panda (Scholastic; 2016): The old maxim that the original is always better than the sequel applies to children's picture books with greater certitude than it does feature films. It can be so difficult to come up with a winning hit book that when an author does just that, they will often (too often) attempt to replicate that success by turning their book into a series. Some concepts can handle a sequel or two or three, but more often than not, the original premise just isn't sustainable. If you have spent much time around picture books, I'm sure you can think of plenty of examples of sequels or series that work and sequels or series that do not (for a good example of a series that does within this very post, check out We Found A Hat below).

Steve Antony's I'll Wait, Mr. Panda, which follows 2014's Please, Mr. Panda, is, I am afraid, an example of a sequel that just doesn't work, even though it does retain many of the pleasures of the original. That original, you remember, was about a big, fat, grumpy looking panda bear who wandered around with a box of doughnuts, wearing a little paper hat with the word "Doughnuts" on it in script, offering a doughnut to various animals, all of which were, like him, black and white in their coloration. When they would answer in the affirmative, he would refuse them all, saying he had changed his mind. When the final animal, a ring-tailed lemur, says "please," Mr. Panda awards him all of the doughnuts–you see, he was just waiting for an animal polite enough to say "Yes, please" rather than just some variation of "Yes" or "I'll take one."

Based then on what we know, what is the premise of I'll Wait, Mr. Panda? That patience, like politeness, is a virtue seems to be a good guess.

In this book, Antony's gigantic, giant Panda is now wearing a tiny little chef's hat and a brightly-colored apron, decorated with the very sorts of brightly-colored doughnuts he was trying to give away in the previous book. In his massive paws he holds a wooden spoon and a bowl. On the first spread, he is approached by a particularly fuzzy looking alpaca (or is it a vicuna, perhaps? Or a llama?) and asked, "What are you making, Mr. Panda?"

"Wait and see," Mr. Panda replies. "It's a surprise."

The alpaca says it will not wait, and leaves. Meanwhile, a tiny little penguin, with a yellow beak, appears and says the title of the book quietly.

And that is the basic pattern. A different animal appears–a giant anteater in the company of some ants, a bunch of white bunny rabbits, a crane-like bird–and asks or guesses what Mr. Panda might be making and, when he tells them they must wait because it is a surprise, they haughtily say something negative about waiting and leave.

Only the penguin continues to wait and, like the lemur who was rewarded in the original, the penguin earns the surprise: A gigantic doughnut that is even bigger than Mr. Panda, covered with chocolate frosting and massive sprinkles, each about the size of the penguin's own beak. Mr. Panda walks away, and the penguin rolls his prize away, hopefully to share with a few dozen other penguins, as there is no way he will be able to eat it before it goes stale.

I have questions, beyond how Mr. Panda made such a big doughnut and where he acquired such huge sprinkles. My main question though is why on earth Mr. Panda, who we know from Please, Mr. Panda, doesn't even like doughnuts, would devote himself to making a doughnut of any kind, let alone a giant one, and why he has an apron decorated with doughnuts if, again, he doesn't like doughnuts.

Antony's artwork is again excellent, and his Mr. Panda design itself is funny, but this sequel lacks the mysterious, suspenseful tension of the original–in which a reader couldn't tell why Mr. Panda was wandering around offering doughnuts and then rescinding his offer. Here the only suspense is in regards to what Mr. Panda was making, and he himself states that it is as a surprise that the characters (and reader) must wait to learn. That's neither as organic nor as intense as trying to make sense of his strange behavior in the original.

Great art, though.

Monster & Son (Chronicle Books; 2016): I found writer David LaRochelle's words to be fairly uninteresting, although they are necessary in order to provide something on which illustrator Joey Chou can hang his images of famous monsters and their sons. Those words are presented in rhyming couplets, one line per two-page spread, beginning with "You woke me with a monstrous roar, my brave and fearless on, / and led the way that filled our day with rough and rowdy fun." LaRochelle takes us through a day in the life of a father and son, as they spend the entire day together, with a dozen more lines.

Each line runs over a long, rectangular, horizontal image of a famous monster and the monsters son or, in the case of the Wolfman, sons. A few monsters fall into fairly generic types, like the four-eyed monsters with tails who have sheets draped over them as they hide in your closet making noises, or a pair of skeletons playing catch with the father's rib bone in the graveyard, or the sea serpents or bigfoot/sasquatches (note the father eating the poor campers' rear tire as if it were a large doughnut).

Most appear to be taken directly from movies: You see King Kong and son on the cover, and there are appearances by Godzilla, Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There are some large snow monsters playing in the Arctic, with the inward curved horns of a Star Wars Wampa, the vampire is of the distinct variety popularized by Bela Lugosi's portrayal in the 1931 Dracula, and there are even a pair of cyclops' with the distinct singular horn and goat legs of the one Ray Harryhausen made for 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (the pair are shown watching a trio of flying saucers descend on the city, perhaps an allusion to Harryhausen's Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers), and then there's the dragon, which looks exactly like the one Maleficent transforms to at the climax of 1959's Sleeping Beauty and is engaged in fiery battle with a knight who looks remarkably like the one from the same film, while a blonde princess in a pink dress looks angrily on from the tower (There is, of course, a "son" here, a smaller dragon with the same basic design hovering around in the background, and now I realize that perhaps this isn't the story of a day in the life of a father and son, but simply a parent and son. While many of the monsters are unequivocally male, most are more ambiguous, and this particular dragon is obviously female).

Beyond the fun of seeing Chou translate all of these famous monsters into his flat, blocky, cartoony, design-heavy style, my favorite part of the book is probably the human reactions tot he monsters. As the focus is on the monsters, they always look to be happy or at least content, clearly enjoying themselves. There are plenty of humans visible in many images though, and they generally look pretty pissed-off. The princess has a finger raised while waiting in the tower to be saved from the laughing dragons, and while I imagine she's meant to be wagging her index finger in a scolding gesture, it's not hard to imagine she's flicking everyone off.

The bigfoot have treed a few campers, who have the downward sloping diagonal lines of angry eyebrows above their dot eyes, the same expression on the faces of the poor people whose boats are swamped by the gamboling sea serpents. Less frequently occurring are looks of fear, like that of the helicopter pilot The Son of Kong seems to be using as a sort of improvised teddy bear.

I'd highly recommend this one to any monster fans, even if only to flip-through.

Tek: The Modern Cave Boy (Little, Brown and Company; 2016): The best part of this book is by far its format, cover and overall design. That may sound like a backhanded compliment regarding the content, created by Mutts' Patrick McDonnell, but it is not intended to. The format and design are pretty brilliant, while the story itself is not that great.

The cover image posted above won't properly convey the degree to which the book is designed to resemble a tablet, so if you find yourself in a library or bookstore in the near future, I'd suggest you look for this book if only to hold it and look it over. It's designed to resemble a tablet, complete with a fake button in the center along the bottom, and extremely thick covers to give it the size, shape and feel of a tablet. Additionally, the edges of all the pages are black, so if you were holding the book from any angle, it would look like a fake tablet.

I have honestly never read a picture book (or, um, anything) on a tablet, so I'm not entirely sure how well this replicates that experience, but I imagine pretty well. Open the cover, and your'e presented with a password similar to that on Apple devices. A few pages intimating the experience of navigating through a device in, the story begins, each page featuring a block of large text in a little white box, and a picture in a box below it, the art McDonnell's familiar, slightly scratchy inklines, here colored with watercolor. Along the top you'll see a battery icon and another letting you know the book is connected to Wi-Fi.

Neat gag, all around.

The story is that of Tek, a cave boy who lived "Once upon a time, way, way back, a long time ago, or maybe yesterday."

Tek stays in his room in his cave all day, playing with his electronic devices: His phone, his tablet and his game box.

"You should have never invented the Internet," Tek's mom grunts to Tek's dad.

I guess this is supposed to be a central gag to the book, that a cave boy is obsessed with modern technology that didn't even exist when I or Patrick McDonnell were his age, let alone in prehistoric times. I can sort of almost see how this tension could be a source of humor, but I didn't get it. The tension of setting and conflict never struck me as particularly funny, and I probably spent as much time asking myself stupid questions (Where did Tek get his tech? Why is he the only one who uses any of it?) and trying to figure out what McDonnell was going for than I did appreciating any aspect of that tension.

All of the jokes that did land with me were basically just McDonnell drawing funny faces on his characters, or sight gags like a fish evolving into a saber-toothed house cat in a single image (Or perhaps it is five different animals, all instantaneously evolving in rapid succession, as they march out of the water, single-file...?)

Also complicating things, these cave people co-exist with dinosaurs, which, five years ago I would have thought was all in good fun, but given what I now know about how many people seem to think human beings and dinosaurs did co-exist, it actually alarms me a little when I see stories about this sort of thing, even when they are clearly light-hearted and meant either as fantasy or jest.

So Tek won't leave the cave or peel his eyes from his screens, and he's missing out on stuff, like hanging out with his friend Larry, a gigantic bipedal alligator with a basketball. Finally, a nearby volcano named Big Poppa solves the problem by erupting, sending Tek, his cave and his devices flying into the air...and away from each other.

The format then changes, as Tek is disconnected, and then resembles that of a traditional story book, losing the look of a faux tablet. Tek, you will not be surprised to learn, sees how awesome the outside world is and all the awesome stuff in it, and he gains a new appreciation for all the stuff he had been ignoring. He leaves his gadgets behind to embrace a gadget-less lifestyle of playing basketball with giant alligators and looking at the stars.

It's a treat to see McDonnell draw dinosaurs, mammoths and cave-people, particularly the vaguely Alley Oop-faced title character, but there's little to the story beyond a simple "electronic devices are bad" message, despite how effective the format, the art and a few of the gags are (I liked the use of the emoticons, for example, or the names Tek gives the dinosaurs whose real names he never bothered to learn).

(Another thing I thought about while reading this? Roger Corman's 1958 Teenage Caveman, starring a young Robert Vaughan**. The twist of that movie is that while it appears to be set back in caveman times, it is actually set in the far-flung future, after we destroyed our world in a nuclear war or whatever and history essentially re-set itself. I didn't spoil that for you, did I? It was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I just assumed you had already seen it at least a half-dozen times. If you haven't, don't; it's terrible. The movie. Not the MST3K episode, which is obviously the best way to watch it. Anyway, I imagined that perhaps Tek and his family lived in the post-apocalyptic future, after President Trump*** initiated a nuclear war with North Korea and China for saying mean things about him, and history started over, only Tek had found a secret cache of early 21st century gadgetry.)

The Thank You Book (Hyperion; 2016): It is my understanding that this 25th entry into Mo Willems' Elephant & Piggie library is the last Elephant & Piggie book, and given how fast and with such regularity that Willems has put out these books, that seems a little hard to believe. That said, this certainly reads like their last book.

The very simple plot is that Piggie and Gerald are sitting contentedly together one day, and Piggie, thinking about how much she has to be thankful for, decides and immediately announces that she will thank "Everyone who is important to me!" A surprised Gerald is doubtful she will be able to pull it off, and insists that she will forget someone.

The bulk of the longer-than-usual book then finds Piggie thanking every single character who has appeared in any of the previous 24 books, no matter how minor, with Gerald following along, continually reminding her that she's going to forget someone. Among those who get thanks is Willems' Pigeon, who Piggie thanks for never giving up, and who she apologizes to, "I am sorry you do not get to be in our books." The Pigeon makes eye contact with the reader while shaking Piggie's hand, and says "That's what you think" (He does, after all, appear in the end pages of most of the books, as if he snuck in and tried to hide).

Gerald is right; Piggie does forget to thank someone. Two someones, in fact, and the most important someones.

It's not the strongest of the books by far, although the pay-offs are both effective. But then, it's more of a victory lap of an installment, and it made me immediately want to re-read all the others, so I could place which characters appeared in which books, as not all of them are as memorable as, say, the snake (Can I Play Too?) or the whale (A Big Guy Took My Ball).

Thank You and Good Night (Little, Brown and Company; 2015): This book is another from cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, probably best known for his newspaper comic strip Mutts, which remains by far the best-drawn strip on most still-extant funny pages. McDonnell is no stranger to picture books, either–he won a Caldecott for Me...Jane–but he seems to have been gradually transitioning into the new (but comics-adjacent) media. While he's drawn almost ten picture books now, half of them have starred characters from Mutts.

Thank You and Good Night does not, but Mutts readers will recognize McDonnell's particular way of drawing people and songbirds, among other clues to the identity of the artist.

The story is a pretty simple one. Maggie, a little girl, is helping Clement, a more little still anthropomorphic rabbit, put on his pajamas. The doorbell rings, and a tiny elephant and tiny bear, also in pajamas are there: These are Clement's friends, Jean and Alan Alexander. They are here for a sleepover.

The trio do various sleepover activities, usual and unusual, and eventually get ready for bed. Once they're tucked in, Maggie asks them all to name what they were thankful for, and, of course, they have a lot to be thankful for. When she too climbs into bed, the life-like little animals have reverted into stuffed animals, suggesting the entire book was Maggie's play with her three little stuffed animal friends.

It's pretty darling, and the naming of things they are thankful for is prayer-like without being a prayer; you'd have to ask a particularly devout parent, but I thought it did a nice job of being religious or spiritual without doing so overtly; that section is offered in the spirit of prayer, if the animals don't exactly recite a verbal prayer, if that makes sense.

And, of course, it's McDonnell, so the art work is perfect. It's all perfectly chosen and seemingly-dashed off lines and soft watercolors, applied not to the cats and dogs that are his usual subjects, but the little animals that look as human as they do animalistic. The story is cute, but nothing momentous. But the art? The art couldn't be better.

Tooth Fairy (Child's Play; 1985): Audrey Wood's book about the Tooth Fairy is probably the most terrifying Tooth Fairy story I've ever experienced in any media, far scarier than dumb old Darkness Falls (the 2003 horror film starring Emma Caufield of Beverly Hills, 90210...although I suppose you guys all know her better from Buffy, huh?).

Writer/illustrator Audrey Wood uses a very comic book-inspired sort of lay out, with each page functioning as a panel, and some of the pages divided into actual panels. The dialogue appears beneath each picture, with the context being all that is used to clue readers in to who is doing the talking; there are no quotation marks or saids.

Brother and sister Matthew and Jessica are getting ready for bed when Matthew's loose tooth falls out. His mother comes in and tells him about the Tooth Fairy, who flies around every night with "her basket of goodies" and, if you put your tooth under your pillow, "she will swap it for some treasure."

I only ever got coins, maybe some dollars. Certainly no "treasure." But "treasure," according to the illustration, seems to be mean "toys," varying from marbles and balloons to dice and dolls. Also, fruit. And a unicorn figurine made from a busted, leaky mold, based on how rough that unicorn looks.

Jessica is jealous, and so concocts a plan to score her own treasure. She takes a kernel of corn, paints it white and puts it under her pillow, and then stuff gets pretty fucked up. In the middle of the night, the children find themselves shrunken down to a tiny size, dwarfed by their teddy bears, which now look like they are several stories high compared to the diminutive children.

The tooth fairy appears and whisks the children away to "the Tooth Fairy's Palace."

It is horrifying.

"Bridges, walls, towers, all made of teeth," she explains. "Every night, we Tooth Elves build a little more."

That's right, it is a city composed entirely of human teeth. Matthew's tooth doesn't go into the building material, but is placed on a pedestal in the Hall of Perfect Teeth.

Jessica's, which has some yellow showing through, is taken to The Tooth Dungeons, wear smiling yellow robots have whole wheel barrows full of human teeth, and are busily cleaning imperfect teeth with a vat of boiling green acid (?), a conveyor belt and tooth brushes as big as themselves.

Jessica's faux tooth is thrown into the vat, and an alarm is set off. The robots' smiles disappear, their eyes turn red and they turn on Jessica: "Your tooth is fake. We must put you in jail."

They pursue the children and the Tooth Fairy, who apparently has no control over these automatons, with their arms outstretched and grasping. The visitors escape, and the children slide down a slide also made entirely out of human teeth and wake up safe and sound and full-sized in their bed.

Matthew has earned treasure, an apple, a peppermint stick, a ball, a toy car and a yellow blob, and he offers to share with Jessica.

The nightmare of a castle built of teeth and scary robots is over. For now!

Woods' art is fairly rough and amateurish, but seemingly constructed that way on purpose. It is an affected style, rather than a lack of talent. I didn't care for the designs at all, which seemed very much of their era, and the humans all looked kind of off and weird to me. Everything else is pretty much pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel.

The book comes with a song on the inside front cover, and some dialogue in a play-like lay-out between Matthew and Jessica on the back cover.

We Found A Hat (Candlewick Press; 2016): Jon Klassen returns to the subject matter he is best known for, animals and their powerful desires to wear hats, with We Found A Hat, which follows I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat and makes Klassen's stories of animals and hats into a trilogy.

While the first two hat books dealt with the theft of hats and were resolved violently through what was likely murder and/or predation (off-page, of course), this one is much more morally complex, despite being told as always with Klassen's short, almost abrupt, but perfectly communicated lines of dialogue and being the story of two turtles who find a hat.

The book opens with the two turtles, nearly identical save for the designs of their shells, on either side of a white cowboy hat. "We found a hat," they say. "We found it together." They take turns trying on the hat, and decide it looks good on both of them (It doesn't though, which is one of the effective jokes of the book; it, being a human hat, doesn't fit them at all, and just covers their heads completely.

"But there is only one hat," they say, "And there are two of us."

And so you see the dilemma.

While the turtles, who talk to one another as well as to the reader, decide that the only thing to do is leave the hat where they found it, and forget that it even exists, one of them has a harder time of letting it go than the other–and the other knows its companion well enough to know what is in its mind, despite what it might say. How can the pair resolve the desire to wear the hat? Must one betray its fellow?

Sure, I guess they could take turns wearing the hat, although that's too simple, and the idea isn't ever broached. It's not a very funny solution, after all. And I suppose I should note that neither turtle kills the other, perhaps because unlike the conflicts in Klassen's other two animals and hats books, these two are both of the same species, rather than having a predator/prey relationship with one another.

I will only say that the solution is as surprising as it is funny, and that this book is just as good as Klassen's previous two, even if it is a more complex one, broken into chapters, even. As in those previous stories, much of the humor comes from the deadpan performances of the animal characters, and Klassen's incredible ability to demonstrate dramatic shifts in emotion by a simple movement of the pupil, or slight change in the shape of the eye.

Visually, Klassen's a master storyteller, and the hat trilogy is a masterpiece.



*A publisher you may understandably want to threaten to boycott if they really do follow through with their recently announced plans to reward an Internet troll so troll-ish he was banned from Twitter with a quarter-million dollar book deal.

**Woah. Did you know that Larry Clark of Kids fame also made a movie entitled "Teenage Caveman," and that it was written by comic book writer Christos Gage? I didn't! It doesn't appear to be a remake, at least not based on what little I just gleaned from IMDb, but I'll see if I can track it down and let you know for sure later.

***That joke was written before November. It's not really funny any longer.