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Why doesn’t Batman dance anymore?

Batman '66 #32

Batman ’66 #32

When I first heard about DC Comics’ digital-first Batman ’66, I thought it was going to be a novelty with little staying power. Nostalgia for the campy Adam West TV series has been pretty high lately, especially in the wake of the popular The Brave and the Bold cartoon, and the artists behind Batman ’66 are faithful to the ’60s pop-art look, most spectacularly rendered by Jonathan Case in the debut issues. But what happens once the initial thrill has passed, and you clear away the cobwebs of nostalgia?

Second, there’s the unique format: When you swiped the page on a tablet, you’d sometimes get limited animation, you’d sometimes get a view of the artwork with the balloons out of the way, and sometimes you would experience a slight shift in the color palette with some retro screentone effects here and there. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky … but it was employed a truly artistic sensibility that’s impossible to replicate on paper. Sadly, as early as Issue 4, the novelty is seemingly abandoned.

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More than just fishnets: ‘Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell’

bloodspellI think DC Comics missed a trick with the long-awaited, Paul Dini-written Black Canary/Zatanna original graphic novel, which finally arrived in this week. Why was there no special edition, fishnet stocking-covered incentive variant? Publishers did a lot of crazy things with covers in the 1990s, and they’ve been doing increasingly crazy things with them in this decade, but I’m pretty sure no one’s ever published one draped in fishnet …

Fishnets are, of course, the most immediate visual commonality between the two superheroines, and this long-in-the-works project, first announced in 2006, was once jokingly referred to as The Fishnet Brigade (a riff on Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic series, in which John Constantine referred to himself, The Phantom Stranger, Dr. Occult and Mister E as “The Trench Coat Brigade”). Dini and DC do acknowledge the importance of the heroines’ legwear, as the cover under the dust jacket and end pages bears a fishnet design, and there’s a scene in which the pair goes shopping for stockings together (“At the rate we go through these things, that place should give us a fifty percent discount,” Zee tells Canary).

The two have a lot more in common than that, of course. They’re also fan-favorite characters who have never been able to break out as stars in their own right (at least, not for long), generally appearing in team books and as supporting characters. And, of course, they’re both among the longest-serving members of the Justice League who weren’t founders, the characters being among the earlier additions to DC’s premier super-team (Black Canary joined in 1969; Zatanna began appearing in the book in the ’60s, and was finally offered full membership in 1978).

Oh, and they both appeared often on the Justice League cartoon, often times written by Dini, who is a fan of both characters.

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‘What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?’: ‘Alice In Comicland’

alice in comiclandEditor, comics collector and designer Craig Yoe has an ideal subject for his latest coffee table-ready anthology: Lewis Carroll’s Alice and the myriad ways in which she has appeared in comics, almost since the medium existed. What makes the subject so perfect for such a book is that it’s so broad that it’s impossible to even attempt to be comprehensive, or even all that representative.

As Mark Burstein, the president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, notes in his introduction to Alice in Comicland, appearances by characters from Carroll’s Alice books, references and allusions to the works, and the instances of direct and palpable influence by them in comics are simply innumerable. In 2003, he and some colleagues put together a book titled Pictures and Conversations: Lewis Carroll in the Comics: An Annotated International Bibliography, and they tracked some 500 comic books in which Alice characters appear. That was a decade ago.

Now, Alice in Comicland is only about 170 pages long. You could fill a collection five times as big with Batman comics in which he fights villains derived from the Alice books. You could fill books bigger still collecting all of the horror or action or sexually exploitative material derived from Carroll’s Alice stories. The almost-astronomical breadth of the subject matter thus gives Yoe and company a pretty valuable pass from any critics. Why isn’t this here, or why is that there instead of that other thing? Such second-guessing is natural to a reader, and I found myself wondering why there’s a Superman comic rather than a Batman comic, for example, or why there’s no mention of, say, Tommy Kovacs and Sonny Liew’s Wonderland or Roger Langridge’s Snarked or any weird Zenescope books or manga or that Hatter M comic or whatever. But the answer’s obvious, isn’t it? It can even come in the form of a (bander)snatch of dialogue from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:  No room! No room!

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A Month of Wednesdays: ‘Batman/Superman,’ Spider-Man & more

batman:supermanBatman/Superman, Vol. 1: Cross World (DC Comics): The greatest virtue of the Greg Pak-written World’s Finest team-up title is also its main drawback: There’s really great, flat-out gorgeous artwork by Jae Lee … except when their isn’t. Lee draws the lion’s share of the book — about 70 of its 100-plus story pages — and  it’s some of the artist’s best comics work; his heroic figures pose through a series of complex layouts, their anatomy and features those of real, if exceptionally beautiful, people, rather than musclebound action figures. The too-busy New 52 costume designs are stripped down to their essentials, the various bits of technology all look like mobile art installations, and Lee’s vision of a Gotham City park is appropriately, if amusingly, dark, twisted and exaggerated.

He might not have been the best possible choice for this particular storyline, which involves two different Batmen, Supermen and Catwomen, given his use of silhouettes and sparse panels, and the cacophony of color-coded narration boxes have to do a little more work than they might otherwise. But it’s jarring to the point of shocking when fill-in artists appear to help Lee, with Ben Oliver-drawn climaxes for the first and last issues/chapters, and an extensive Yildiray Cinar flashback in another issue. There’s also a rather tacked-on origin story of Darkseid and the main villain for the story arc, which appeared in September’s Justice League #23.1, drawn by two more artists.

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Our man Megatron: ‘Transformers MTMTE’ #28

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 10.26.06 PMTransformers lore can be hopelessly convoluted. You think the DC Comics and Marvel universes are hard to keep track of? Try being a Transformers fan: There are various comic book universes, Michael Bay’s movie universe, the one from Japanese anime, the all-ages cartoon universe from Cartoon Network, the all-ages cartoon universe from the Hub, the original 1980s cartoon universe, and one where everyone’s an animal, which may or may not be the same universe as the 1980s cartoon.

Making it even more complicated, this canon multiverse is often acknowledged by the characters themselves, and its existence frequently becomes the basis of storylines. In March, the Transformers: Regeneration One series, which boasts a lineage to the very first Transformers comic, came to the end at Issue 100 with the Autobots untethering their universe from the rest of the multiverse. That made the Transformers mortal, ending the original comic book universe continuity permanently.

However, even if you’re not a Transformers fan, chances are you know the basics: Autobots, good; Decepticons, bad. Expanding on that: Optimus Prime is the hero, Megatron is the villain. It’s white hats versus black hats, except the cowboys in this situation can transform into vehicles, cassette tapes and guns.

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Vertigo works blue: ‘Vertigo Quarterly CMYK’ #1

cyanDC Comics’ Vertigo imprint has been releasing one-shot anthologies on a fairly regular basis, using them to dust off old titles like Strange Adventures, The Witching Hour and Mystery in Space, which gives contributors a general theme, and likely helps the publisher maintain trademarks.

Despite once being as common as mutant superheroes are today, anthologies of any kind haven’t been readily embraced in the modern marketplace, and one imagines the ever-increasing costs of comics doesn’t help. These Vertigo titles, featuring short, generally forgettable, riff-like stories from a multitude of creators — which the law of averages suggests will include some stories a reader won’t like — will run you $7.99, just two bucks shy of an ad-free, spine-having trade paperback collection of Image Comics’ Pretty Deadly … or Vertigo’s own FPB: Federal Physics Bureau.

This year the imprint is trying something slightly different: It’s still publishing $8 anthologies, with a variety of creative teams riffing on a theme, but rather than raiding long-faded DC titles (sorry if you were waiting for a revival of More Fun Comics or Adventures of Bob Hope),Vertigo is going with a sort of printing theme. Four anthologies, published on a quarterly basis, each using one of the four basic colors of traditional printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK. If nothing else, this will make repackaging and reselling these stories in a trade format a little easier, as the theme will be consistent between a series of anthologies.

The cyan issue debuted this week; it’s a very strikingly designed comic. The cover by designer Jared K. Fletcher is simple and understated, and it pops off the comics rack and begs for special attention. Even the two-page table of contents, in which each story is given a paint swathe-like panel of cyan/different shades of blue, is lovely (I feel tempted to make a joke about combining the thrill of reading a table of contents with the thrill of picking out a paint color, but I can’t; I genuinely dug those pages on an aesthetic level).

So the idea is rather inspired, as is the design — but how are the stories? Par for the course, I suppose. Some good, some bad, some mediocre; some clever uses of the theme, some that seem to ignore it all together. Let’s take a look, shall we?

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‘The Harlem Hellfighters’: Great subject, not-so-great comic

harlem hellfightersIn the afterword to his new graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters, writer Max Brooks cites two of the most common objections he encountered while shopping his screenplay about a regiment of black soldiers who fought for the United States in World War I: First, most Americans weren’t terribly interested in the first World War, a subject they knew almost nothing about; and, second, most Americans weren’t terribly interested in stories about African-American soldiers fighting in that war they weren’t interested in.

It likely won’t surprise anyone who reads The Harlem Hellfighters that it began as a film script — for a made-for-TV movie for TNT, actually, although the cable channel ultimately passed — as the cliches from virtually any war movie ever made are present, but that afterword does include an impressive example of why Brooks felt so passionate about the project. He recounts a discussion with an African-American professor who argued that one of the ways those in power have oppressed black people is by wiping them out of history books. When Brooks mentioned the Hellfighters, the professor responded that there were no black men fighting in World War I.

This, then, was history obscure even by the standards of academics who care passionately about the subject.

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Bad girls, good comic: Katie Skelly’s ‘Operation Margarine’

AD.OPERATIONMARGARINE.cvrfile_Layout 1Katie Skelly‘s previous comic book Nurse Nurse was a science fiction epic, set in the far-flung future, involving space travel and space pirates, and featuring some kicky fashions. It earned and deserved its comparisons to Barbarella, even if what the two shared was more a spirit and tone than anything else.

Her latest book, Operation Margarine, is also something of a genre work, although the genre is quite literally a more down-to-earth one. Something between a cautionary, youth-gone-wild flick and an exploitative biker picture, it suggests the sort of movies that Roger Corman used to produce for the drive-in, that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would mock and that Quentin Tarantino might enthusiastically praise and make some allusion to in one of his own films.

But, like Nurse Nurse, it’s all unmistakably Katie Skelly. The characters are quiet, mysterious and only barely sketched out symbol-people. The events flow like dominoes, with no grand plan or theme or message apparent. The thrills are visceral, surface thrills, the action and actions all communicated in a straightforward manner that gives every panel an equal amount of import.

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Two #1s: ‘Batman Eternal’ and ‘Lumberjanes’

variant coverI have to imagine there were almost as many forehead-slaps as high-fives in the room at the meeting where someone suggested DC Comics devote their next weekly comic to the Batman franchise. There had to be as many people thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” as there were people saying, “Good thinking!”

“More Batman” has rarely been a bad business decision for the publisher, and not only is the franchise carrying more than its fair share of the 52-ish books that make up the DCU line, the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo flagship title continues to perform at crazy-high numbers.  So why not produce another Batman book, and rather than sticking it in a corner of the franchise, far from the main book, the one that seems to “count” the most, why not tie it closely to Snyder’s book? And hey, why not ship the thing weekly? Again, high fives!

I really love weekly comics, although the format has some pretty unique pressures, which we’ve seen play out various ways as DC has tried different  routes over and over to get to weekly comics, with no two efforts—52, Countdown, Trinity, Wednesday Comics, and the bi-weeklies Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost—really being produced in quite the same way.

The most obvious pressure is that getting these things to ship on time like clockwork often means sub-par art, so as much as I was personally looking forward to Batman Eternal, I was frightened as much as disappointed to see the art starting out bad; this was, after all, the issue that should be the best looking.

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A Month of Wednesdays | Some DC, some manga and ‘All Star’

ALL STARAll Star (NBM): The latest graphic novel from Joe and Azat‘s Jesse Lonergan, All Star gets a lot of mileage out of its setting in both space and time. The space is an extremely small small town of Elizabeth, Vermont, a place with little to do and little chance of escape for the young, caged tiger types who are coming of age there. The time is 1998, and Lonergan returns again and again to the sports, politics and pop culture of the time for knowing gags, commentary on the events of the story or even just color.

Our protagonist is Carl Carter, the cocky, hot-shot all-star of the title, a fantastic baseball player whose skill could take him far from town once he graduates, and has made him one of his school and town’s most popular residents, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering brother (who is also his teammate).

One night, after drinking way too much at a party, he and his best friend make a stupid decision, one that gets his friend expelled from school and sent on a completely different path than Carl, who suspects his baseball skills and the importance of the sport to his school got him off light.

He begins soul-searching from there, and realizes too late how screwed-up his world is, and actually has been for a while,  but it’s too late to do anything about. A tragedy — in the sense that it ends sadly rather than happily — All Star captures small-town adolescence perfectly (perhaps all too perfectly, depending on a reader’s mood and propensity for elegiac nostalgia), and is actually a great deal of fun, despite the down ending and the heavy melodrama.

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What all’s All-New this week? ‘Ghost Rider’ and ‘Silver Surfer’

surfer-ghost-rider

It’s another week, which means a new batch of Marvel series launched as part of the publisher’s “All-New Marvel NOW!” initiative showed up at my local comics shop: Felipe Smith and Tradd Moore’s All-New Ghost Rider, Ales Kott and Garry Brown’s Iron Patriot, and Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s Silver Surfer.

I read two out of the three, as those were the most visually interesting, and seemed to be part of the initiative’s guiding principals: matching striking talents with lower-tier characters for idiosyncratic takes that veer away from the “typical” Marvel comic. Also, those were the two that featured characters who haven’t had a shot at their own book for a longer while. (Sorry, Iron Patriot, it’s not you, it’s me. I’m sure there are plenty of other critics willing to review you).

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Whither Pandora? (Other than in ‘Trinity of Sin: Pandora’)

first appearance

In summer 2011, the Geoff Johns/Andy Kubert event series Flashpoint was reaching its climax, and the fifth issue was devoted to The Flash trying to unscramble the mixed-up, dystopian timeline in a typically Flash way — by running around really fast.

Near the end, there was a strange, two-page spread of an interlude that seemed almost grafted on: The Flash catches a glimpse of a mysterious, hooded woman with glowing eyes and lines all over her face, who says portentously, “Because the history of heroes was shattered into three long ago. Splintered to weaken your world for their impending arrival. You must all stand together. The timelines must become one again.”

The timelines were those of the DC Universe, the WildStorm Universe and a handful of DCU characters who had mainly been appearing in books published by DC’s Vertigo imprint. The result? The New 52, the biggest and most dramatic reboot the oft-rebooted, retconned and otherwise tinkered-with DC Universe had ever experienced in the history of forever; they even relaunched Action Comics and Detective Comics!

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Two from D+Q: ‘On Loving Women’ and ‘White Cube’

white-cube-loving-women

Diane Obomsawin’s On Loving Women and Brecht Vandenbroucke’s White Cube have two things in common: First, they’re both published by Drawn and Quarterly; second, they’re both collections of very short, individual comics stories riffing on a single theme that defines them as books — little pieces contributing to a great, big whole.

Wait, did I say they have two things in common? I meant three they have three things in common: Both are excellent.

Beyond those commonalities, there’s not a whole lot of overlap between the two works. On Loving Women is a series of six- to nine-page, black-and-white short stories about the real-life sexual awakenings of various women who love other women. White Cube is a bunch of one- or two-page, fully painted, full-color, silent strips about modern art and related subject matter. The former is pretty funny, but mostly by virtue of the way Obomsawin tells a joke, as the stories are more conversational anecdotes than gags. The latter is very funny because it’s a collection of comic comic strips (although some of those jokes are pretty dark).

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This is the best comic about a giant chicken you’ll ever read

wicked chicken queen

While I’m wary (to put it mildly) of throwing around trite phrases like “breakout artist” and “hot new cartoonist,” it sure seems like Sam Alden has a certain enthusiasm building around him in indie circles. Reading Wicked Chicken Queen, it’s not hard to see why. Whatever your initial reaction might be on glancing at that title, I can tell you I didn’t expect anything nearly as graceful, thoughtful and moving as this comic turned out to be.

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Brought to you by the letter M: ‘Moon Knight’ and ‘Magneto’

moon-knight-magneto

This week’s new releases include three more series launching as part of the “All-New Marvel Now” initiative — Magneto, Moon Knight and Wolverine & The X-Men — but of those, I only want to discuss the first two.

That’s because they’re actually new series, rather than an existing series simply relaunching with a new #1 issue and a new creative team. (The previous volume of Wolverine & The X-Men, the one written by Jason Aaron, seems like it just ended. When was that? Let’s see, it was … last week? Marvel’s not even waiting a whole entire month to relaunch titles now?)

Those two books are also solo series featuring lower-tier characters, making them the exact sort of comics Marvel has been allowing creators to pursue riskier, quirkier, more idiosyncratic and interesting approaches on since the success of Mark Waid and company’s Daredevil and Matt Fraction, David Aja and company’s Hawkeye.

And, of course, they also both start with the letter M.
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