BATMAN: YEAR ONE
BATMAN BEGINS is based, in part, on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's BATMAN: YEAR ONE. Thus, you get this well timed review. The movie opens at 12:01 tonight in theaters across America. Somehow, I doubt it'll top STAR WARS, but all the positive reviews have to help boost the box office somehow.
In the meantime, let's talk comics. YEAR ONE literally takes place over the course of one year (January through December) in the lives of James Gordon and Bruce Wayne. Miller parallels the two lives from the first moments in which the Batman story begins in earnest. Gordon is new to Gotham City. He has a somewhat checkered past he's looking to rehabilitate in the dirtiest, grimiest, and most corrupt city he could imagine. Bruce Wayne is a jet-setting playboy who has been traveling the world for the past couple of years, only to return home to Gotham to avenge his parents' murders. One arrives on a rickety train; the other takes a private flight. One has a wife and a baby on the way. The other has a butler and a stream of beautiful women that must be used to cover his public image. On the surface, they seem like such opposites, but they'll soon be forced to work together for a greater good, albeit via two different methods.
YEAR ONE is as much Gordon's story as the title character's, though. In fact, it's Gordon whose character is strengthened the most in the tale. While it's nice to fill in a couple of the gaps and the leaps of logic a writer might be faced with to explain Batman's dual identity, that's still all too easy to write around. Wave your hands, create some alibis, throw in some new technology. What Miller does with Gordon, though, cements the character in my mind as a ruthlessly honest man with feet that might have the softest touch of clay in them. He's not corruptible, but he's not perfect. His past is somewhat nebulous, including some dirty dealings in Chicago and a military background that helps him at the street level. He's up against a large corrupt political machine, though. It'll take some time -- more time than one year -- for him to rise to the rank of Commissioner.
Miller shows us all of this. He doesn't dump the info off in a couple of talking heads panels to get to the next big set piece. While there are some of those big action scenes in the book, it's all the smaller things that create the strong story. Gordon is tempted repeatedly to do the easy thing and give in to the corrupt police. When that doesn't work, they make it personal. They make it physical. Miller shows Gordon going through all the paces, like a rookie being hazed at the start of the new athletic season.
Miller's trademark terse captioning is in full effect here. Splattered across all the pages are short internal monologues, combined with tough talking dialogue and snappy patter. Miller doesn't go as far as the 16-panel grid he used in THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, but he doesn't simplify down to SIN CITY's four panel pages, either. You can feel yourself reading this book. It's interesting enough to keep you turning the pages, but not so light and breezy that you'll get a papercut from flipping the pages so quickly.
David Mazzucchelli's art will seem familiar to those who've been following GOTHAM CENTRAL. It fits a similar mold. Heck, it might as well have created the mold. It's not splashy superhero art. It's very much restrained, with attention paid to the storytelling and little things like lighting, anatomy, and perspective. There is an economy of line present in the book that doesn't wind up looking like an anime style. Mazzucchelli's brushy art has weight and substance to it. Often, it's where the line isn't showing that the detail comes through. It's a shame he hasn't done more comics work over the years.
The new hardcover presentation of the book includes a 40-page sketchbook section. While there are some interesting curiosity items in there, it's not as strong as it might be. For one thing, it doesn't seem all that well organized. Script samples and layout pages are thrown up next to character designs and cover concepts and examples of the original printed pages contrasted with black and white grabs of the original art and -- there's a lot of stuff there, but no real flow to it. There's a nice shot of the recolored art without the bluelines present. For those of you who are used to Photoshop - that means they dropped out the black and white line art layer to expose strictly the painted color. I love that look, as a curiosity item.
The highlight of the bonus material is the opening three pages, which are new strips done by Mazzucchelli. They're short autobiographical pieces explaining the artist's history with the character of Batman. They're not worth the price of the book on their own, but they are a nice addition.
The recent hardcover edition of BATMAN: YEAR ONE is available now for $20. It features one of the worst cover designs in modern comic book history, featuring a dust jacket that's only half there. While the story included in it may be less than 100 pages, it's a milestone for the Batman mythology, and definitely worth a read.
Or, more accurately, SERENITY #1 -- JULY! I've got the early review.
SERENITY #1 is definitely cool. Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews fashion a story that stands on its own, with enough action and adventure to please any fan. Captain Mal Reynolds, Zoe, and Jayne are planetside trying to make a deal, when everything goes wrong and hell breaks loose. Typical, eh? More importantly, there's a complete story in here. This isn't a tease for the next issue. It's an extended chase sequence with a few pages' worth of coda, and a gentle nudge to the reader on the last page to point the way to the next story.
Character development is light, but everyone shows what their character is in both subtle and explicit ways. There are a couple of balls put into play by the end of the issue that might just lead to some development, though. Stay tuned.
Whedon hasn't lost his characters at all. They all sound authentic, and everyone gets at least one moment. That's nine different characters with dialogue in a 22-page comic. These days, that's a monumental feat.
While Whedon and Matthews choreographs everything nicely enough to let the astute reader pick up on clues towards various relationships and personal demons, you really need to be a pre-existing fan of the series to "get" everything. Assuming you are, you're going to have a fun time with this book. If you aren't already, you'll be thrown into an exotic world with eccentric characters and a completely different feel from anything you've read before. Go rent the FIREFLY DVDs now. It's the best TV show to never make a second season.
The art by Will Conrad works for the book. Likenesses are good enough, and not all of them look like stiffly posed publicity shots. The preview copy I have is a black and white copy of color art, so some of the stuff is a little muddy. The end of the major action sequence inside a bank is a bit tough to read because of the coloring, but I'm sure that will clarify itself when the book is released next month. Laura Martin is credited for colors, so I have confidence in it.
The lettering is good, complete with Chinese characters for the swearing. Everything's been thought through to fit the tone of the series.
Dark Horse is indicating a July release for the book. I'm guessing they'll try to get it out in time for San Diego and whatever Joss Whedon presentation(s) might be happening there. We'll see. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing this book in full color, though.
For more on SERENITY, click here.
BACK TO THE BURN
NEGATIVE BURN has returned in a new format. It's now a squarebound book, though I'm not entirely sure what its publication frequency is supposed to be. The introduction indicates that they're trying for a quarterly format, but I'm skeptical we'll see that right away.
The first issue carries a "Winter 2005" cover date and is available in stores that haven't sold out of them. It has an impressive roster of creators attached to it for what amounts to a basic black and white anthology title. Credit to editor Joe Pruett for landing all of their talents.
Some stray thoughts on random stories:
"Thoughts On a Winter Morning": I don't know all that much about Kurt Busiek's personal life. Honestly, that's fine by me. I'm not 100% sure how much of his lead story in this volume is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. I'll just run on the assumption that the lead in this story is, indeed, him.
I'm a good decade younger than Busiek, but I can relate to his feelings of shifting perceptions very easily. In his case, it took the birth of his daughter to make him see the world around him differently. It also caused him to look back at perspective differences between a person and the world around him as a child, as opposed to a mature adult. Personally, I get that from my two year old niece. You see the other kids more now. You understand their screams, whether of joy or pain. That, in turn, even makes you think back to when you were their age, or an age they're soon to be. I have zero memories from being two, but I do remember some things as a four and five year old. The world around you shifts as you grow up, and Busiek nails that feeling here in a very honest and heartfelt story. It's only eight pages long, but says so much.
The art from Steve Lieber fits this type of story so much better than it does with any superhero comics he may fill in on from time to time. Lieber's stuff works best in black and white, I think, and being able to play around with different character types and environments helps him to stand out. Sure, I could wish that he had hand lettered the story himself, but the computer lettering doesn't at all hurt the story, which is otherwise very quiet and nostalgic.
"The Wish": Erik Larsen brings Angel and her alien pal, Glum, from the pages of SAVAGE DRAGON for a cute short story. It asks the ages-old question of, "What would you do with one wish?" It may seem old hat, but it wouldn't be to someone Angel's age. After getting past the usual "more wishes" bit, it's fun to see Glum's slow burn at Angel's youthful innocence. He wants to take over the world and she wants a pony. They question each other, as two characters with definite viewpoints trying to understand the other's. It's a cute storytelling exercise, and I wouldn't mind seeing more of it.
"Sketchbook" is just what it says it is - a short sketchbook section. This month, it's from the pen of Vincent Locke. It's a mix of painted and line work. I'm relatively new to Locke's work, but I love the pen and ink I've seen so far. I'm not quite so enamored with the painting, but that's more a matter of personal preference than it is an indication of skill level.
I read something in a music magazine or a blog recently where the writer decried the lack of instrumental songs on albums anymore. Where once they were used to fill out an album or make use of a tune that may not necessarily work best with lyrics, now they're considered a cheap filler for an album that didn't have enough material. Thus, they should be avoided.
I think there's a similar feeling towards sketchbook material. It's often filler in the back of a comic if the page count comes up short or there's not enough letters for a column. In an anthology title, though, I think it's a great idea to showcase someone's work with a section like this.
Short takes on some other stories: Fabian Nicieza has a nice short piece with a twist on superhero power identification. Bob Burden teams up with Andy Kuhn for a baffling story that looks more like Michael Allred than Kuhn. Zander Cannon, Kevin Cannon, and Shad Petosky combine for a funny all-ages story about an alien invasion that ends up in a snowball fight.
NEGATIVE BURN carries about 90 pages of stories for just $10. This is the best anthology series I've seen in a long time. It has a nice mix of established independent and mainstream creators working for it. The production quality is top notch. And it's not asking too much -- a (theoretically, but hopefully) quarterly book in nice size chunks. I'm sold.
IS THIS SOME KIND OF NORSE THING?
SON OF VULCAN #1 follows the standard storytelling riff about a young boy who looks up to a superhero type character, only to join him as a sidekick. The "Vulcan" in question is, I guess, a classic DC character. I'm sorry that I'm not up to date on all those obscure DC favorites.
Writer Scott Beatty takes a fairly generic plot and infuses it with enough life to make it interesting, if not terribly spectacular. The dialogue is the highlight of the issue. I think Beatty must have finished a BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER marathon before sitting down to write this episode. There's a feeling to some of the gag lines in the book that reminds me of Joss Whedon's writing. Mix that in with examples of a technique made popular by Fabian Nicieza, who used smaller lettering to indicate soft speaking, and you get dialogue that holds your interest as the plot sleepwalks through.
Miguel Devante is an orphan with few friends, besides one close friend who happens to be a girl. He's lonely and looking for an adventure. So it makes sense that he'd so easily adjust to a new lifestyle. The only extra push Beatty gives Miguel is an abusive orphanage director. That's the only part of the book that was too forced for me. It's an extra clichéd push that Miguel didn't need to move the story ahead. Orphanages are rough enough places to induce a desire to runaway. Adding the cruel adult to the mix is unnecessary.
It's only the first issue, so there's plenty of time for Beatty to start throwing curve balls at me. It could also just be that I'm not the target audience for this book, so I shouldn't worry about it. If the target is a younger reader who perhaps hasn't read 15 years' worth of comic books already, it's all going to be new to him or her. In that case, this is a straightforward book that should entertain every little kid's power fantasy. There might be a couple too many limbs being chopped off and holes being blown through people's bodies, but that's also the kind of thing that George Lucas built STAR WARS on. There were plenty of kids in those theaters last month.
Keron Grant's artwork is Amerimanga-ish. Miguel is probably the same age as the target reader, so using an artist with any sort of manga technique incorporated into his style isn't such a bad idea. My problem comes with the storytelling. While Grant's art is consistent and generally pleasing to the eye, his storytelling is, literally, all over the page. Panels overlap and intersect. Characters break out of panel borders for no good reason. The pages, overall, look busy and distracting. I have a feeling if I saw the black and white versions of these pages, they'd look too busy to comprehend. Reading it panel by panel, I had little problem following the story. At first blush, however, each page can be a little overwhelming. I also think a little more differentiation in the coloring scheme (credited to "Danimation") might have helped. While the book is colorful, I don't think enough work was done to push the backgrounds back or pop the characters forward. More of that is needed to compensate for the art style.
Or, it could be that I'm just an old fogey who doesn't understand kids these days.
Overall, SON OF VULCAN #1 is just a storyline starter. Beatty has his character in place to realize his greatest fear/dream coming true. There's a sympathy factor there for the kid and the art isn't so hard on the eye that it's going to distract you from the story completely. If it sounds like I'm hedging on the book, it's probably because I am. The next couple of issues will be key in deciding just what kind of title this is. Right now, we're still just wading into the waters.
VARIOUS AND SUNDRY
- I know I promised to finish off the Pipeline Previews this week, but I got backed up with too many reviews. I promise to get to it next week, before orders are due through your retailer.
- Oni Press has announced an ambitious system for accepting artistic submissions at the San Diego Con in just over a month. If you have the itch to draw comics for a living, completing this talent search process will not only give you a shot at a job with Oni, but it'll also be good practice to make you a better artist. Oni has sample scripts available in a variety of formats that they want you to draw up for them. Submit your final pages to Oni in San Diego at the Con or via mail by the end of July, and you have a chance at stardom, and maybe much more.
- I picked up my copy of the NEW YORK POST on Monday to get the free copy of a BATMAN comic I already own. It's just the novelty of the whole thing, I suppose, that makes it so appealing. It's definitely a nice giveaway to an overwhelmingly "civilian" audience of close to three quarters of a million people.
The book looks good. I was surprised that they kept the nice glossy paper and all 32 pages. (They could have reprinted 22 story pages and kept the ads to the covers.) While there were some third party ads, the rest were replaced by Batman Begins ads or house ads. The 1-888 comic shop locator number is at the bottom of the indicia, printed larger than the regular type, in a different font. I'm sure some will complain that it didn't get a full page ad, but it's right there at the bottom of the last story page. The house ad for the HUSH compilations also has the 1-888 number at the bottom.
There's also an ad you can use to subscribe to any of the Batman books, complete with cover images. I hope that's not the logo they're really going to use for the ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN series. Ick.
- Continuing my series of daily comics blog reads that I forgot to mention in my original column a couple of weeks ago:
The Johnny Bacardi Show: It's not just an alcoholic beverage, but also a regular comic book review blog, with interesting takes on the week's comics. It's a little bogged down right now in that mix music CD thing that's been spreading across the blogosphere, but it's otherwise always worth a daily stop at.
Near Mint Heroes: Shane Bailey's site may not be quite as active as it once was, but when he gets to link-blogging, it's definitely worth a perusal. His focus branches out from comics, often including design links and art links outside the comics world that a comics fan should be able to appreciate.
- One last self-serving mention: Last Wednesday marked the eighth anniversary of this column. Eight years, 500+ columns, and still going. I need a nap. Badly.
The Pipeline Podcast will be updated again this week. Subscribe to the feed here. Check the Pipeline message board for updates on its status.
You can still hear last week's podcast through the MP3 file. (8 or 9 minutes, ~4.1 MB)Things calmed down a bit this past week over at my blog, Various and Sundry. We still touched on topics like the death of Dana Elcar, my search for new (old) music, iTunes stupidity, celebrity gossip and rumor-mongering, and Apple's move to Intel.
The Various and Sundry DVD Podcast continues to look at the week's DVD releases, every Sunday or Monday. Those of you with a podcasting program can subscribe to the feed.
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.