PIPELINE PODCAST #11
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INTRODUCTION TO JEPH LOEB WEEK
This week, Pipeline Commentary and Review looks at one of the steadier writers of the past decade in comics. Jeph Loeb came to us from the world of Hollywood, eventually landing his place in the comics spotlight for BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN, a maxi-series with his artistic partner, Tim Sale. The two have since joined for a follow-up series, three retrospective mini-series for Marvel, and more. Loeb has written steadily for everyone from the X-Office to the Superman Office. He's done independent books, as well, working with Michael Turner on a new Aspen project, and Rob Liefeld on a short-lived universe.
But in the end, we will all think of Jeph Loeb as--
-- wait. I can't do this anymore. This week's column, indeed, features three reviews of books Loeb has written. That's strictly coincidental. It just happens to be what I read this week. This isn't meant to be a career retrospective, or a eulogy for the man, or anything like that. Loeb is, after all, still alive and well, thanks. Jeph Loeb has written some pretty nifty stories in recent years, though, and I plan on reviewing three of them this week. That's all there is to this column. Don't look any further into it past that. Thanks, and enjoy.
SUPES AND BATS TIMES TWO
SUPERMAN/BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIES gives us the story of a Kryptonite meteorite heading for earth, a presidential administration led by Lex Luthor plotting Superman's demise, and the possible identification of the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents. That's all it takes to bring DC's two titans, Batman and Superman, together for a little while. Judging by the sales figures on the original issues, it's worked for DC. Now, the first two storylines of the series are available in hardcover format.
The first, PUBLIC ENEMIES, collects the initial six-issue story arc. It helps to wrap up a number of lingering storylines that kicked off when its writer, Jeph Loeb, was still one of the prime architects of the Superman titles. For that reason, it's a valuable read for all Superman fans interested in the modern continuity. As a story on its own, it works in a couple of different ways. The tone changes drastically during the story from a smaller character piece to a large-scale hero fight, to a larger scale fight for the planet, and then back to a mixture of both. My favorite parts of the book happen at the start, when it's just Superman and Batman playing off each other. Loeb's captions highlighting the different thought processes of the two characters are as strong a piece of writing for that point as I've ever seen. Many writers have been able to toss out a line or two of dialogue to show the differences between the Big Blue Boy Scout and the Dark Knight. Loeb goes further than that, though. He uses the captions to get inside their minds and play them off each other in the context of the story. It's a nice technique. It might not be anything ground breaking for the two characters, but it certainly is well done.
The story lost me a bit when it came down to fisticuffs. In the climactic battle between Superman and Luthor, the entire thing seems like set dressing for the purposes of exploring Superman's reaction to Luthor's presidency in the first place. At the same time, though, a final solution is in action to take care of the big threat of the series -- a Kryptonite meteor heading for earth. That's an even more laborious and expository piece of writing that just detracts from the other story and throws the pacing off. I'm not a big fan of comics where one plot happens on the bottom tier of each page, while the "A" story happens above it. To me, it always comes off as confusing at the worst, and merely diversionary at the least. This one doesn't head towards confusion, but it is a rocky few pages to get through.
Ed McGuinness' art is not vastly changed from all the other work he's done in recent times. That's not a complaint. I like his style, and getting to see him draw so many different characters in this short book is a highlight. At the same rate, there's nothing I can say to draw new people in who've already decided they didn't like his stuff.
We must also give credit to Dave Stewart for his coloring job on this book. The book never gets so dark as to become muddy. Even in a daring nighttime raid of the White House, he pops out certain colors for easy recognition. He's not interested in coloring the literal truth. There's enough of that in there, but there's also storytelling going on. He doesn't overpower McGuiness' art or storytelling concepts. That's important. Any colorist who is not afraid to use bright tones in today's comics climate is OK by me.
SUPERGIRL is the title of the second book culled together from issues of SUPERMAN/BATMAN. That should give you a good idea for what this book is all about.
Sometimes, it takes a little time and distance to be able to judge a book accurately. Such is the case for many, I think, when it comes to SUPERGIRL. This is the re-entry of Supergirl into the DC Universe. As Loeb writes in the intro to the book, both he and Dan DiDio wanted something simpler: No more active matrixes or earth born angels. They wanted the little sister or cousin of Superman back, like they had at her inception 40 or 50 years ago. At the time the book came out, some were still annoyed at the treatment of Linda Danvers and Peter David's title starring a Supergirl character. Others rejected the book because it was noted "good girl" artist Michael Turner drawing it.
Waiting for the hardcover to collect the book, in this case, works to DC's advantage on both counts. For starters, time heals most wounds. I'm sure that those who had themselves worked up over the end of David's title are probably too busy working themselves up over the end of FALLEN ANGEL to care anymore about this story. David's SUPERGIRL was, critically, successful. It was a lot of fun. It featured some great art by the likes of Gary Frank and Leonard Kirk. But now it's done and its creators have moved on. Bringing a new Supergirl into the mix and returning her to her roots -- they were ripped up in CRISIS 20 years ago -- introduces a virtually new character to the universe, one who is approachable and sympathetic.
The bigger hurdle for me to get over, though, was the art of Michael Turner. Before this, I've always thought of him as the guy who drew WITCHBLADE and other titles that featured half-naked chicks who shouldn't be half-naked. They were books that all featured look-alike California beach girls running around in the streets of New York City, or swimming under the water. It was all T&A.
Giving Turner a superhero book, though, let's us see something different. Yes, Loeb purposefully wrote in lots of female characters to this book -- Wonder Woman, some Furies, Supergirl, lotsa Amazonians -- for the sake of giving Turner more of his specialty to draw. However, he didn't create a bunch of look-alike characters who were poorly clothed. Yes, there is some of that, most notably when Supergirl is walking around Metropolis in her street clothes, or in the ill-fitting things that Lois Lane bought for her. Yes, too many of the female figures have terribly elongated torsos. Get over that and you won't have too many problems.
There's more to Turner's work in this book than just the female figures, though. He opens with a stunning shot of Gotham City, as seen from the bay. It's a great gothic noir architecture shot, complete with police blimp. He draws some great mechanical items, such as Batman's water wing and a Kryptonian ship that looks natural and sleek. The art also effectively tells the story. One of my problems with WITCHBLADE -- across all its artists -- is that it often seems to have a divide between story and art. Much of the story is usually strewn across pages in caption boxes, without any sequential narrative to back it up. Panels are thrown haphazardly across the page. Here, though, Turner tells the story. While panel sizes fluctuate often for little reason and wind up floating across the page, it never becomes difficult to follow. Loeb never needs to cover things up with captions to explain what's going on. He saves those words for the internal monologues.
There are also the moments of greatest impact. When Superman throws a punch at Supergirl, for example, it's a two page blast. Turner imparts the seriousness and the weight of the punch across the figure work, but the most telling part of that spread is the look on Superman's face. It isn't one of gritted teeth and furrowed brow. The hurt on his face for having to throw the punch in the first place feels real. There are other smaller moments in the book, too. Not only does Supergirl act like a teenager, but she also looks the part, still somewhat awkward.
Loeb goes for spectacle in this storyline, and Turner pulls it off. The book includes a trip to Apokolips and a planet-threatening crisis there. You get a couple of explosive crashes in Metropolis, fights on Paradise Island, a fleet of Doomsdays versus Superman, Superman versus Darkseid, and more.
While we don't get an appearance by Krypto this time like we did in the last book, he is the butt of a joke or two. This being Loeb's writing, even those jokes have relevance to the theme of the book. This is about Superman and his "kid sidekick," Supergirl. What's the difference between this situation and Batman having Robin? Loeb does a great job in exploring those similarities and differences. The internal Batman and Superman monologues work again.
Peter Steigerwald takes the colorist duties for this volume. His tones mesh very well with Turner's linework. So much of this story is dark, but Steigerwald's tones are never muddy. They're never covering the story. They're interesting in their own right, and varied enough to keep even the most jaded observer interested in the pages. In Superman's Fortress of Solitude, for example, the landscape is filled with white and bright primary colors. The hellish fires of Apokolips bring multiples shades of red, but never any one that's too obvious or uniform. Gotham City looks dark, with hints of earthtones for highlights. It's solid work.
As an aside, I wonder for just how long Loeb has been dying to use the caption, "Apokolips. Now." I laughed out loud. I know it's a simple, stupid thing. I know it's probably been done before. Knowing that it's coming from a movie guy, though, gives it that much more weight.
As I think back on these first two storylines, it's the SUPERGIRL story that I prefer. While it has a grand scale of its own -- being set on Apokolips, instead of a group of heroes fighting amongst themselves and against the President of the United States -- there's something much more personal and focused here. Supergirl is the point of the story, and the reactions of all those around her give everyone the same mission in the story. It's not so much every man for himself on this one. Also, the "moments" seem more important. All those fights I mentioned before seem like run of the mill comic book superhero fisticuffs when reviewed here, but they feel more momentous in the heat of the story.
Both volumes of SUPERMAN/BATMAN are available today in hardcover format for just $20. They're great packages, with foil inset logos across the middle of the front covers. Neither will cure cancer or win New York Times plaudits, but who cares? They're both fun superhero reads with a heart at their center, no matter how bombastic the set dressing might get.
GONNA WASH THAT GRAY RIGHT OUTTA MY HULK
HULK: GRAY is the last of the "color" mini-series Loeb did with Tim Sale. I think it lands square in the middle of the three mini-series, all of which I enjoyed. It isn't as visually arresting as DAREDEVIL: YELLOW was, but I got into the characters more than I did with SPIDER-MAN: BLUE. The only fault I had with the Spider-Man book is that it covered a period of time in Peter Parker's life that wasn't necessarily of strong interest to me. This isn't a "professional critics' opinion" here. This is just a personal preference
The Hulk is a tough character to write. The audience wants "Hulk Smash!" The writer wants to psychoanalyze the duality in man's mind, between civilized man and beast. The best writers for the character find a way to do both. I think that's part of Peter David's charm with the character. Over the course of a 100 issue run, he added layers to the character's history and personality, while also giving us battles against everyone from Wolverine to The Punisher to X-Factor to a whole host of the usual rogue's gallery.
Loeb does much of the same here, albeit at a smaller scale shortly after the gamma bomb's explosion. He finds a new wrinkle in the Betty/Bruce relationship, but also remembers to throw in those fights in the desert to give Tim Sale the ability to make something spectacularly visual out of it. Sale likes to draw BIG things, after all. Two page splashes of the Hulk bounding across the desert? A full page of a car crashing into an uncaring Hulk? (That's a trick Loeb reused to much the same effect in the aforementioned SUPERGIRL story.) Hulk versus a surprise guest star superhero? Check check check.
But it's also the quieter moments in Sale's artwork that turn out to be the most memorable. Loeb channels the spirit of OF MICE AND MEN for a scene of the Hulk tending to his pet rabbit. Sale's initial double page spread is memorable. The opening splash page of Hulk and his furry friend is charming. And what happens next is clearly spoiler territory, but filled with powerful emotion.
Sale's Hulk is a brutish cartoon. He's a monster, but one with that stupid hangdog face that endears you to him, just before he stumbles into a blind rage. This Hulk reminds me a bit of Sam Kieth's. He's large and hulking, but also compact and cute. He's stupid, and that shows on his face. It's not just rage on his face, but the ignorance of it. To him, this is normal. You almost can't hate him because, like a child, he doesn't know better. The most powerful moments in the series are those where Hulk realizes what he's done isn't good.
Sale renders Hulk with the same kind of gray washes he used in the Daredevil book. It makes Hulk stand out throughout the book against the linework, but it also takes advantage of the character's skin tone in the story. It's such a simple, but smart, addition to make to the tale.
The opening and closing of the story take place in Leonard Sampson's office, where Bruce Banner is telling the story of his earliest moments as the Hulk. Those pages are black and white, with a flair that reminds me of Frank Miller or Will Eisner. Since Miller freely credits Eisner as a major influence, can't we can just stick with Eisner here?
Loeb's continuity, as a whole, is suspect by design. After all, it's a story told from Banner's memory. We're reminded often throughout the book that it might be shaky on the facts. Any new details Loeb adds to the mythology of he Hulk are for you, dear reader, to decide on the validity of. Is that rabbit a real part of the canon? Or is it Banner's memory embellishing on something? For some, that will render this story pointless. I appreciate the question marks, though, for what they add to the symbolism of Banner's story.
The hardcover edition of the series is available now in Marvel's oversized hardcover format for just $21.99. It sits on my bookshelf quite comfortably after DAREDEVIL: YELLOW and SPIDER-MAN: BLUE.
Next week: Pipeline Commentary and Review #406: Where the rubber meets the road.
Also: Another SIN CITY review, and the latest volume of BONEYARD. I promise.
Coming Wednesday: Another new Pipeline Podcast to take a look at this week's comic advances. We fixed the RSS file this week, so please let me know if your podcatching client gives you any trouble.
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All political discussions have been pushed off to one neat side at VandS Politics.
More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page. I haven't had that account in years, but they've yet to delete the page space. Go fig.