Sunday, August 30, 2015

Legends of the Dark Knight: issues 172-181

Testament (issues 172-176)

Written by John Wagner. Drawn by Chris Brunner.

When people ask me what’s so great about Batman, it’s well-known stories like The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Killing Joke and many of the epic story arcs that I point to as an example. After reading nearly two hundred issues of LOTDK, many have been excellent, but few serve as a great example of why Batman is an awesome character and how great his stories can be. “Testament” is one of those.

When I first started reading this, I was deeply skeptical for a number of reasons. Firstly, it deals with a gang of vigilantes who go around straight-up murdering criminals. This trope has been used before, including right in this very series (“Faith” back in issues 21-23, for example); the entire character of The Punisher is based on this premise as well. Also the fact the guys committing the murders go by the rather silly name of “Rough Justice” and are kind of fundamentalist yokels seems rather trite. Thankfully, the story is compelling enough so that these aren’t major hang-ups to the plot.

You’d think this would be a rather simple story: Batman chases villains; fight ensues; Batman emerges triumphant – right? It’s not quite that simple. Wagner writes this script with a lot of depth to both the story and the characters. There is a sympathetic character – Lonny Hector – within the Rough Justice gang that gets in way over his head. Even his girlfriend becomes a significant supporting character and affects the plot.

There are plenty of fun and suspense action sequences throughout this five-part arc, including the Rough Justice gang storming Wayne Manor and discovering Batman’s secret identity. The problem with using that device is that you know anyone who knows Bruce Wayne and Batman are one in the same will end up dead by the end of the comic – that’s really not a spoiler. Still, this script is balanced well enough between standard Batman comic and action-oriented movie-like thrills and adventure so that it’s constantly entertaining. 

The art by Brunner is fine, but not amazing. It walks a fine line between simple and cartoony and over-stylized and messy. I honestly could not distinguish between the main villains – they all look the same! His layouts and composition need a little tweaking as well as there were a few moments where I had to re-read entire pages to determine what was happening. Otherwise, Brunner is a good artist who is largely responsible for making “Testament” one of the best installments in LOTDK to date.


Lost Cargo (issues 177-178)

Written by Devin Grayson. Penciled by Jean-Jacques Dzialowski. Inked by George Rodriguez.

I’ve never liked it when LOTDK has featured stories taking place in the present day DCU. Usually, this is reserved for epic crossovers, but for some reason “Lost Cargo” is a fairly ordinary two-parter that does not seem to take place in Batman’s formative years. 

I’m not really sure what the point of this little arc is. In fact, it’s actually rather difficult to follow, which is rather annoying since the premise is so simple. Catwoman ambushes a strip club because they’re involved in human trafficking so the gangster running the club scurry the women out in a truck but somewhere along the way – for some reason I cannot understand – the driver is told to abandon the truck. Batman gets wind of this and goes undercover as “Matches Malone” to track them down. Not surprisingly, Catwoman stymies him and there’s a lot of fighting with various gangs, cartels, syndicates and other assorted goons.
I think this could have been a good story had it been spread out more. Limiting it to only two parts does not leave much room for exposition and zero room for characterization. There’s really no feeling of suspense, either. Supposedly they only have a 20-hour window to save the women but this story feels like it takes place over the course of a week.

While the artwork itself is fine, it’s the layouts and actual storytelling procedures that need work. For a story where so little happens, I found myself wondering what was going on quite often. Who are these people? Why are they doing this? How did we get here? Does Catwoman really not know Matches Malone is Batman?


Full Circle (issue 179)

Written by A.J. Lieberman. Drawn by Greg Scott.

I have a feeling, beginning with the previous story arc, that LOTDK is now taking place in [then] current DCU. There’s really no other way to explain this one-issue story, which is all a prelude to what will probably be a much longer story. And if this were the first installment in a multiple-part arc I’d have absolutely no problem with it. Though a bit cliché, it’s pretty well written and interesting to follow. 

Practically the entire comic is the origin story of an assassin who came out of an orphanage in Hong Kong where he was, apparently, the victim of chronic molestation of some sort. He kills the man who did it to him, who – not surprisingly – is connected to the local Mafia. 

Batman doesn’t even appear until the last page, which means this isn’t really a Batman story at all. If it’s continued in one of the other Batman titles you’d think they would mention that, but it just says “The End.”

What the actual hell?

I’m not a fan of the art in this comic, either. It’s stylized to be sure, but also very messy and ugly and hard to follow at times. The cover looks like something from someone’s sketchbook and has nothing to do with the story contained within. Greg Scott must know something about Hong Kong and/or Chinese culture to incorporate the details he does, the problem is his actual compositions leave much to be desired. I can’t always tell who’s talking or who’s who. I also don’t believe that a kid this young committed the heinous crime he did nor that he got away with it.

If this story is continued somewhere else I’d be happy to read it. As it stands, “Full Circle” feels completely incomplete.


The Secret City (issues 180-181)

Written by Dylan Horrocks. Penciled by Ramon F. Bachs. Inked by Jon Holdredge.

LOTDK had been on a roll with many very good to excellent story arcs in the last few years. But beginning with issue 177 (dated May, 2004), it began to be set in the [then] present day DCU and the quality of the serious, coincidentally, plummeted at the same time. There is no reason for this title to take place alongside all the other multiple Batman comics; its entire purpose was so stories could be told that take place outside of regular continuity. Every time LOTDK has strayed into the current times the results have never been good.

“The Secret City” is a two-parter that has plenty of story, exposition and action – so much so that it feels like a longer arc than it actually is. The problem is it’s set in the present day, so Barbara Gordon not only appears as Oracle (a character I’ve never really liked), but she’s the protagonist and main character throughout. Excuse me, isn’t this supposed to be a Batman comic? It’s got his name right in the title… twice.

This is a really contrived premise about a bunch of hackers killing each other. It appears to be some kind of James Bond-esque plot of international intrigue or industrial espionage or some such overly-epic basis for a thriller about hackers and computers. But Horrocks either knows nothing about how computers works; or he doesn’t care, and just wrote a cliché story to fit in a superhero comic book (probably the latter). Even by 2004 standards, most of what happens here is completely unbelievable. Barbara repeatedly has throwaway lines about cracking massive codes in a matter of seconds and sending other hackers around various firewalls and such. It certainly sounds good in a comic, but it’s just so corny. 

Additionally, most of the story takes place within an MMORPG, so you have characters speaking to one another in real time – but are they talking to each other or typing? 

The story completely jumps the shark when the master villain hacks a U.S. Navy ship and launches a missile after another hacker. When his identity is revealed, it’s just so completely implausible. Though it is par-for-the-course considering everything that had happened leading up to it.

I will say the art is very good. Bachs and Holdredge have a pretty clean, crisp, slightly cartoony look. Though at times the coloring and computer effects completely upstate the line art. Otherwise, the layout and composition is fine, but not enough to salvage the comic from a lousy script.


NOTE: I am skipping issues 182-184 as they are entries in the mega crossover event "War Games" and are completely irrelevant out of context. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Legends of the Dark Knight: issues 162-171

Auteurism (issues 162-163)

Written by John Arcudi. Drawn by Roger Angridge.

If you were to read these two comics without the covers, you might think you’re reading issues of The Batman Adventures or any of the comics that are based on the various animated series that appeared in the last few decades. This looks and reads exactly like an episode of B:TAS, actually, and I think that’s what its intension was. Not that I mean, because it’s a cute, fun read.

Not that this story is brilliant or amazingly inventive. It’s a simple tale of The Joker hiring and old out-of-work actor to play him in a movie biopic of his life. He stages fake crimes so Batman shows up and simply films the event for the movie. This is similar to “The Joker’s Comedy Capers” from Detective Comics #341 from 1965 which was later adapted into an episode of the Adam West Batman television series. 

This story doesn’t take itself very seriously, as it’s obviously intended to be light-hearted and comical from the get-go. Angridge’s art is reminiscent of R. Crumb, but not quite as overtly campy and cartoony. Arcudi’s script does seem exactly like something from an animated show, as it’s cute with a lot of subtle humor (which I think would actually work better in animation than in a comic). It’s not knee-slappeningly funny but it is wry and smart, albeit a bit out of place in LOTDK.


Don’t Blink (issues (164-167)

Written by Dwayne McDuffie. Penciled by Val Semeiks. Inked by Dan Green.

It’s very rare that LOTDK has featured the same writing and art teams for more than one story arc (DC repeatedly said in the “Letters to the Editor” section that’s one of the “rule” for LOTDK). Though it’s been done before, I’ve never seen a creative team return so quickly and with just as good a showing as they did the first time, but McDuffie, Semeiks and Green have done just that with “Don’t Blink,” a sequel to “Blink” that had just appeared less than a year prior. 

The original story strayed into more traditional superhero comic territory by having one of the supporting characters – Lee Hyland - have a super power. He starts out as a villain but ends as a hero. Here, he’s Batman’s right-hand-man as he has the ability to literally to see through the eyes of any person (or dog) he touches. In the first chapter, Batman has to rescue him for a covert government facility where his powers are being used in a Minority Report-type fashion to spy on and track down terrorists. This is the first reference to terrorists I’ve seen in the post-9/11 run of LOTDK

Batman of course succeeds, but not after single-handedly fighting his way through a bunch of goons much like Neo in The Matrix movies. Batman and Hyland then track down the leaders of a baby trafficking ring. The final chapter involves Batman having to rescue Hyland and his wife from two of the federal agents he fought in the first chapter.

I mixed feelings about this story. On the plus side, it’s clearly written like a movie with a breezy pace and lots of action scenes. And much like a movie Batman is constantly surviving explosions, avalanches, traps, extreme weather and of course being ambushed by big guys with guns. It’s comic book superheroism in its raw form and it’s actually pretty fun. On the other hand, this work is a bit “fluffy” and derivative. It doesn’t seem like you’re reading a comic, it’s like you’re reading a pitch for a movie; and I don’t meant that a compliment. As I already pointed out, “Don’t Blink” has many similarities to other works; I’m not saying McDuffie is blatantly ripping-off those movies and such, just that the influence is quite obvious. 

Still, this is a fun comic to read and it’s easy on the eyes. Semeiks and Green’s art isn’t especially beautiful or stylized so as to be unique and memorable – it’s simply solid and serviceable. It’s certainly better than a lot of other entries in the LOTDK series, that’s for sure.


Urban Legend (issue 168)

Written by Bill Willingham. Drawn by Tom Fowler.

It’s been a long time since the last single-issue LOTDK story (issues 114 and 115 were the last two one-parters). The thing about standalone stories in this series is they tend to wander into the mindbender territory (if not straight up own it unapologetically). “Urban Legend” definitely approaches that area, but never completely delves into it. In fact, it’s played more as a comedy than anything else. The thing is, the entire story is like an April Fool’s Joke on the reader as there’s a supposedly surprising reveal at the end. However, it wasn’t a surprised to me as I suspected this was the case from the first page and became even more suspicious as the story progressed.

I’m not sure what the point of this was. Since “Auteurism” showed LOTDK is apparently open to cartoon-like campiness and tomfoolery, I suppose “Urban Legend” was another entry in that vein. The thing is, this comic is played fairly straight and is intended to be taken at face value. If you don’t take it seriously it works well enough I guess.



Irresistible (issues 169-171)

Written by Tom Peyer. Drawn by Tony Harris. Inks by Wade Von Grawbadger and Wayne Faucher (issue 171 only).

Probably my most common complaint about any comic is that it’s unoriginal. I feel like everything’s been done by now, is there anything I’ve never seen? Well, “Irresistible” may be such a book. The premise is that a young man named Frank Sharp has a hideously deformed face but also has the supernatural ability to mind control someone simply by touching them. 

Normally, that kind of premise would create for a cliché villain and a cliché story, but Peyer takes a completely different approach by making this guy into a fairly realistic (or at least plausible) tragic character. He narrates almost the entire story, a method rarely used in LOTDK. He’s angry, bitter, twisted, megalomaniacal, and also pretty naïve and quite frankly stupid at times. He thinks money and power will make him happy, but they really don’t. 

Though there’s plenty of great moments of mystery and suspense, since this isn’t the kind of villain we’re used to seeing, there’s also a bit of melodrama as Frank is constantly arguing with his parents, friends, and business associates. You pity him because he’s so disgusting-looking, but you also hope he gets his comeuppance because he’s such a pig. The way Batman goes about investigating and confronting him is interesting to say the least; though it does involve a few sequences which are bit overboard even by comic book standards.
Tony Harris was the artist on “Ex Machina” and was great on that series. Here, he’s just as good with his style that is clean and cartoony and yet amazingly realistic. The colors are a bit monochromatic and several pages are more effects than art, but overall the arc looks great (except for Frank’s face - yeesh!).