A Month of Wednesdays | X-Men, Batman and dog butts

Amazing X-Men, Vol. 1: The Quest For Nightcrawler (Marvel): Writer Jason Aaron transitions quite seamlessly from his 42-issue (or eight-trade paperback) run on Wolverine & The X-Men to this new series, which maintained the same setting and much of the same cast, only a switch of focus. Rather than the student body of the Jean Grey School For Higher Learning, the stars of this series are the superhero teaching staff, with a few additions not seen in Wolverine & The X-Men (Firestar coming in to replace Kitty Pryde, who was spirited away from the cast by Brian Michael Bendis to appear in his X-Men books, plus Northstar and the guy whose name is in the subtitle and is front and center on the cover).

Aaron's main partner for this first volume is penciler Ed McGuinness (inked by Dexter Vines and colored by Marte Gracia), an artist whose big, muscular, cartoony style fits perfectly with the slightly zany tone of the story, and Aaron's X-Men comics in general. Cameron Stewart draws the sixth issue in this collection, a sort of epilogue in which most of the other characters you would want to see reunite with Nightcrawler do so.

The Quest begins with the Bamfs, the little blue gremlins who have haunted the Jean Grey School for years (and whose origins will definitively be explained by story's end), whisking a group of X-Men into the afterlife at Nightcrawler's behest. Storm, Beast, Iceman, Firestar, Northstar and Wolverine must help the deceased Nightcrawler save the afterlife from his demonic father Azazel, who has refashioned himself into an actual pirate, pillaging Heaven, Hell and purgatory of souls.

They do so, of course, and, before it's all over, Nightcrawler is back among the living. As superhero-resurrection stories go, it works perfectly well, and is among one of the simpler, even more blase sorts. (It was interesting reading this story, in which traveling between life and death seems easier than air travel in 2014, on the eve of Marvel's much-trumpeted storyline in which Wolverine is going to be "die.")

Aaron does give Nightcrawler some big trauma to angst over at the climax, something that will color his storyline going forward for God knows how long, and it seems pretty out of place in a comic that spends most of its time on swashbuckling pirate fights and warm hugs between old friends, but then, I suppose that gives it some subversive punch.

It's rather a shame that Aaron is leaving the book already, as this seemed primed to be the traditional X-Men book, featuring the "good" (or, at least, "not Cyclops'") team of mutants, but as accomplished as the new writing team of Craig Kyle and Chris Yost might be, they will likely lack the market clout to keep Amazing X-Men from slipping from one of the franchise's three A books — alongside Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men — and into B-book status.

Batman and Robin, Vol. 4: Requiem For Damian (DC Comics): Grant Morrison and Chris Burham may have killed Robin IV Damian Wayne off in the pages of their Batman Incorporated, but Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray have been telling the story of what happens next in the pages of Batman and Robin (which, just to make buying serial comics more daunting, has of late kept its numbering but changed the second half of its title every month).

This volume collects six issues of the second-best Batman comic (although I prefer Gleason's artwork to that of Batman's Greg Capullo), those dealing with Batman's initial grieving of the loss of his sidekick and biological son. After the all-silent first chapter, each issue features Batman teaming up with a different member of his strained family while experiencing one of the five stages of grief: Red Robin, Red Hood, Batgirl, Catwoman and, ultimately, Nightwing and Alfred. Meanwhile, Batman investigates a newly discovered connection between Damian and a college girl with the familiar name of Carrie Kelly, who seems to have been introduced mainly for something shocking to put on the "WTF? Certified" gatefold cover, and to keep fans guessing as to who might be the next Robin (a still-growing list, thanks to Batman Eternal; interestingly, all of the most likely candidates so far seem to be female).

Tomasi takes Batman to some very dark, very weird places in this volume, with the Dark Knight kidnapping and dissecting Frankenstein to learn how to resurrect the dead, and, later, using a virtual-reality machine to see what mistakes he might have made that led to Damian's death. It's a compellingly written, expertly drawn epic of superhero grieving, and one that fully embraces the fantastic setting of these superhero comics. It's pretty hard to reconcile with the goings-on of the 23 other Batman titles, and the Red Hood chapter was a bit confusing, given the uncertain ground of that character's post-reboot existence, but read on its own, it's a fine comic book.

Detective Comics, Vol. 4: The Wrath (DC Comics): Wow, what a mess this collection is. Its 264 pages consist of six issues and an annual, but there are nevertheless three writers, 18 credited artists and almost as many colorists involved. Regular TEC writer John Layman does the lion's share of the writing, and artists Jason Fabok and Andy Clarke do the majority of the drawing, but it's somewhat disappointing to see Layman and company using the opportunity of The New 52 continuity reboot to simply offer do-overs of previous stories ... especially so, given Layman's apparent willingness to make up his own villains previously, even if they were derivative of classic foes (The Merrymaker and his murderous clown gang, for example, or Emperor Penguin for another).

The stories in this book offer the origins of Man-Bat Kirk Langstrom and his wife Francine (awkward, considering the in-continuity Batman Incorporated included Man-Bats and Man-Bat serum), reintroduce master of disguise Jane Doe (created by Dan Slott and Ryan Sook for the 2003 miniseries Arkham Asylum: Living Hell) and offer a new version of Mike Barr and Michael Golden story from 1984's Batman Special #1, featuring the cop-killing anti-Batman The Wrath.

The threat of the (sub-)titular character is ramped up significantly, as his new secret identity is that of an anti-Bruce Wayne, and he has plans to destroy the entire city's police force in one fell swoop, but his story arc's not really much longer, and his visual design somehow even worse than that of the original, which was basically a Batman costume using the letter W, rather than a bat, as a motif. There's some rough continuity in this storyline as well, as The Wrath's alter-ego tries to force Bruce Wayne into admitting he secretly funds Batman, and Wayne refusing ... despite that Wayne gave a press conference announcing it (an announcement that wasn't rebooted, according to Scott Snyder's "Death of the Family" script).

More problematic is the fact that individual issues of TEC feature back-ups with a different focus (here on the Langstroms) by different artists (mostly Clarke). I don't think DC has really figured out how to collect back-ups satisfactorily. Here they are collected in order, so we get a chapter of the main storyline, then a short chapter of some off-shoot, and so on, alternating back and forth ... except when the annual shows up. Read straight through in trade, it reads like the comics equivalent of channel-surfing.

Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats. (NBM): The contents of this collection of web cartoons by Jim Benton is about as varied in tone and style as his career: Benton has been a T-shirt designer (and created "It's Happy Bunny!") and an animator (The Secret Files of the SpyDogs), and he's responsible for multiple popular series of juvenile books (Franny K. Stein and Dear Dumb Diary).

All of which is to say he doesn't really need to make cartoons and one-off comic strips, but he does anyway. I imagine it comes down to a combination of two reasons: one, he likes doing it; and two, he's really good at it.

Each page of his Dog Butts ... features a different comic, some simple one-panel cartoons, some multi-panel gag strips. The art styles employed are so incredibly different that many of them look like they're the works of different cartoonists, with Benton affecting different design styles, different lines, different color schemes, different lettering and even different types of jokes throughout.

There are a few that aren't even jokes, but look like greeting cards, and read as heartwarming, if saccharine, affirmative statements. Some are dark and twisted the way some of the most memorable Perry Bible Fellowship cartoons were. Sometimes he works blue. Sometimes he presents work tame enough that it could appear on a newspaper comics page. Other times he presents perfect, wordless one-panel gags that look like better-drawn installments of Gary Larson's Far Side.

Everything about the book is all over the map except, perhaps, for its level of quality.

Injustice: Gods Among Us, Vol. 2 (DC Comics): I was quite surprised by how much I ended up enjoying the first collection of the Tom Taylor-written, bunch-of-guys-drawn digital-first series based on a video game where Superman and Wonder Woman go all Kingdom Come times 10 on their alternate version of the DC Universe, where everyone's costume is even more elaborate and bulky than in the New 52. I'm sad to say that my ardor waned quite considerably during this volume, which I attribute to two primary reasons.

First, the most fun, funny and engaging characters in the original volume — Harley Quinn and Green Arrow — have a greatly reduced role here, and one of them doesn't make it out alive (the exception that proves the rule being the Injustice annual, in which the two team up with Black Canary to take on Lobo, which is included within this volume). Second, the first act, in which we witness the descent of Superman into madness and his embrace of fascism, seems to just go on forever. This makes two whole collections worth of Superman going crazy, and just-as-crazy Wonder Woman serving as his Lady Macbeth, at one point sneaking up behind Captain Atom and slitting his throat to kill him everyone around them who isn't her and/or Superman.

I've since learned enough about the game to realize that all this is going down on an alternate Earth, and the heroes from the "real" DC Universe will get involved and hopefully save the day to some extent, I've been ready for them to move on from the "Superman is soooo crazy, guys!" plotline and start working toward a resolution. (In this volume, Superman kills two former allies, and, before that, Jonathan and Martha Kent and the computer ghost of Jor-El all take Batman's side and tell Superman to stop being such a crazy, murder-y fascist).

This volume introduces a handful of new characters to the drama, in addition to the aforementioned Lobo: Lex Luthor, Darkseid, Kalibak, Black Adam and Martian Manhunter.

As with the previous volume, the artists change with every chapter, so there's no real visual consistency to the book. But it was nice to see Kevin Maguire show up for a Captain Marvel Shazam story.

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