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Legends of the Dark Knight: Shaman (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Given the success of the Batman line in general and Year One in particular, a comic book like Legends of the Dark Knight made a great deal of sense. First published in 1989, the original objective was to tell stand-alone stories that could be positioned at any point in the life of Batman. As such, the book was not tied on any status quo at the publisher or any demands of the on-going Batman or Detective Comics books.

These were continuity-light stories that would allow writers to tell any story they wanted, unhindered by the larger editorial direction of the Batman line. Legends of the Dark Knight filled a pretty great niche in the Batman line. In a superficial way, it allowed the comics to reconnect with the success of Frank Miller’s Year One, giving the company the option of publishing more comics set in the rough early days of the Caped Crusader.

A dark night...

A dark night…

However, the continuity-hopping nature of the title meant that Legends of the Dark Knight could welcome all sorts of creative teams for short runs without tying them down. Batman and Detective Comics were traditionally books where creative teams would enjoy “runs”, with the occasional fill-in. In contrast, Legends of the Dark Knight could rotate through creators, allowing for different flavours at different times.

More than that, free from the burden of having to tie into a larger context of Batman, many of these Legends of the Dark Knight stories were friendly to casual readers who did not care about the on-going titles. Eventually Legends of the Dark Knight found itself tying into events like Knightfall and No Man’s Land, but the bulk of the run was accessible on its own terms. Featuring a varied assortment of creators free to tell the stories that they wanted to tell, Legends of the Dark Knight was a great idea.

I am the lord, your Bat-god!

I am the lord, your Bat-god!

As a whole, the two-hundred-and-fourteen issue run of Legends of the Dark Knight holds up remarkably well. The run contains a number of genuinely classic Batman stories like Gothic or Prey or Faces or Blades or Hothouse or Going Sane. The first twenty issues of the title are remarkably strong, and there is a very series argument to be made that the anthology nature of Legends of the Dark Knight made it the best Batman comic book of the nineties.

However, when it came to launching Legends of the Dark Knight, it made sense for Batman veteran Denny O’Neil to write the first story. O’Neil had been an essential part of the Batman line since the seventies. He was a prolific creator who had contributed an incredible amount of material to the wider universe of Batman. During a short run on Batman with artist Neal Adams, O’Neil had helped to restore some of the character’s darkness and mystery following the bright and colourful sixties.

The mask comes off...

The mask comes off…

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Batman – Arkham Asylum: Living Hell (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

There is something absolutely compelling about witnessing the surreal and the impossible through the eyes of ordinary people. In the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, DC seemed to take a novel approach to the larger Batman mythos. Acknowledging the absurdity of the world inhabited by the Caped Crusader, comic book fans were asked to look at that strange world from the perspective of the ordinary people inhabiting it.

Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark all collaborated on Gotham Central, the wonderful police procedural that offered a new way of examining the streets of Gotham. As observed by the members of the Gotham Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit, Gotham’s population of heroes and villains seemed particularly unsettling and ethereal. It is one thing to imagine the weird and wonderful world inhabited by the Batman and the Joker and the Mad Hatter. It is another to imagine sharing that world.

He knows how to make an entrance...

He knows how to make an entrance…

Launched a few months after the first issue of Gotham Central, Dan Slott and Ryan Sook’s wonderful Arkham Asylum: Living Hell is a six-issue miniseries that invites the reader inside the eponymous institution. As glimpsed through the eyes of white-collar criminal Warren White, Arkham Asylum is a place that defies explanation – a macabre and horrific environment that is home to all sorts of depravity and brutality.

Batman himself barely appears in Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, existing at the fringes of the book as he does with Gotham Central. However, despite these limited appearances, it remains clear that Warren White has found his way to the other side of the looking glass.

We all face our demons...

We all face our demons…

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Non-Review Review: What If?

“Can men and women ever really be friends?” is so familiar that it’s practically a cliché. The line that exists between platonic male-female friendship and romantic entanglement was the engine that drove When Harry Met Sally, one of the best-loved romantic comedies ever produced. What If? covers familiar ground, charting the awkward friendship that develops between a young animator in a long-term relationship and a medical school drop-out working through his own issues.

To be fair, the tension between “romantic entanglement” and “platonic friendship” is somewhat undercut by the fact that What If? positions itself as a romantic comedy. The movie plots a familiar arc, hitting the expected plot points along the way. The structure is very clearly that of a romantic comedy, right down to the somewhat contrived (and inevitable) third act obstacles. Imposing the genre constraints of the “romantic comedy” upon a film like this cannot help but suggest an obvious answer to the  driving question.

What If? works despite the familiarity. That is largely down to the charm of its two lead performers. Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play well off one another, creating a wonderfully intimate dynamic that suggests genuine affection rather than simply superficial attraction. What If? is a light comedy, but one that is executed with sufficient charm and wit.

Why can't we be friends?

Why can’t we be friends?

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Batman – Year Two (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Batman: Year Two is an… interesting read. It’s much-maligned by comic book fans, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Most obviously there’s the fact that it really doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there’s also the fact that it was published by DC as a way of capitalising on the success of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Year One is a classic comic book story, one of the greatest origins ever written, and one that endures to this day, where even Scott Snyder felt intimidated in writing over it more than two decades after it was published.

Batman: Year Two is not that sort of classic.

In fact, it’s not any sort of classic. However, divorced from context, it’s an interesting read. It feels like writer Mike W. Barr is consciously and gleefully subverting absolutely everything that worked so well in Miller’s Batman: Year One, rejecting the notion of a version of Batman anchored in something approaching the real world, and getting right down to the comic-book-y-ness of the character. Positioning it as a sequel to Batman: Year One feels odd. It would almost read better as a rebuke.

Welcome to the late eighties...

Welcome to the late eighties…

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Non-Review Review: Planes 2 – Fire and Rescue

It’s the eyes.

When computer-generated animation first emerged, the hardest part was the eyes. Figures could be rendered in a completely photo-realistic fashion, right down to individual strands of hair, but the eyes were always a problem. If the eyes weren’t right, the animated characters – no matter how thoroughly rendered – inevitably felt like they were beckoning us into the uncanny value. The opposite was also true; cartoonish figures and inanimate objects could be imbued with incredible humanity if the eyes were right.

All fired up...

All fired up…

The computer-generated animation in Planes 2: Fire and Rescue is certain competent. It is not cutting edge, but computer-generated animation has reached a point where it doesn’t have to be cutting edge to work effectively. There are action sequences, there is physical comedy, there are stylised insets. While Planes 2: Fire and Rescue doesn’t break new ground, it is relatively polished.

However, it’s the eyes. A stylised decision in keeping with the world established in Cars, the planes have eyes that look like two-dimensional drawings on the windscreen. It’s a very simple representation of the eyes. It is also a decision that undoubtedly makes them a lot more toyetic. The planes can move their wipers and control the height and width of their windscreens to generate all sorts of exaggerated expression. However, the eyes never seem more than stickers, unable to convey depth or nuance.

Flying so low...

Flying so low…

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Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleason’s Run on Batman & Robin – Pearl & Death of the Family (Review)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Peter Tomasi is one of the best supporting writers in comics. Writing a supporting title in a shared superhero universe is a very daunting task. It requires a unique ability to weave into (and out of) events and storylines dictated by more high-profile writers on more popular books. Due to the structuring of superhero publishing, the direction for an entirely line is typically dictated by one (or maybe two) books, with the rest of the line alternating between supporting those books and trying not to make waves.

Tomasi is very good at this. His Green Lantern Corps book provided a suitably solid support for Geoff Johns’ more high-profile Green Lantern comic. He was the logical choice to take over Batman & Robin after Grant Morrison departed, even if the book did cycle through a variety of creators including Paul Cornell and Judd Winick. Tomasi is a writer with a lot of experience as an editor, and – as such – has a knack for picking up on themes and core values of particular writers.

He shall become a bat...

He shall become a bat…

Following the “new 52″ relaunch, Batman & Robin was very much a satellite book in DC’s Batman line. It was a holding pattern, a book designed to feature Damian Wayne while Grant Morrison prepared to launch into Batman Incorporated. It was part of a line that was largely being driven by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s work on Batman. There was no sense writer Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason would be doing anything particularly bold or daunting with the book at this moment in time.

Dutifully, following an eight-issue introductory arc, Born to Kill, Batman & Robin found itself bouncing around between various high-profile crossovers in the Batman line and in the wider context of DC’s publishing schedule. In the spate of issues between Born to Kill and the end of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated run, Tomasi and Gleason find themselves navigating a veritable minefield of DC continuity and crossovers.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

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Geoff Johns’ Run on Justice League – Throne of Atlantis (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Geoff Johns on Justice League should be one of the defining superhero comic books of the twenty-first century.

After all, Johns has done a lot to define DC over the past decade or so. Johns is one of the defining voices in superhero comics. He has enjoyed long and successful runs on iconic characters. His work sells well and has generally garnered positive reviews over the course of his career. Johns knows how to “centre” a character and to help cut to their core. 52 is generally regarded as a high watermark of twenty-first century DC comics, and Johns is the only one of the four authors still consistently working at DC comics.

Everybody out of the water!

Everybody out of the water!

So putting Geoff Johns on Justice League is a no-brainer. Indeed, many fans had been expecting a high-profile run from Geoff Johns on the title long before the “new 52″ relaunch. Given Johns’ successful runs on Action Comics, Green Lantern and The Flash, writing all of these characters together should be a recipe for success. When it was announced that writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee would be handling the relaunched Justice League title, it seemed like a veritable worldbeater of a title.

In sales terms, Johns’ Justice League remains a success. However, it has been less satisfying from a creative standpoint. Artist Jim Lee departed the book after a year – with several fill-in artists along the way. However, even with DC drafting Ivan Reis to replace Lee, Justice League is not as satisfying as it should be. There are lots of reasons for this, but the biggest problem with Johns’ Justice League is that it always seems so fixated on what is happening next that it never appreciates the moment.

She really sweeps him off his feet...

She really sweeps him off his feet…

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