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“… is Ra’s Al Ghul immortal?” Denny O’Neil, and Reflecting on a Bronze Age Batman Villain…

Denny O’Neil passed away last week, at the age of 81.

Many more informed and articulate individuals have written at length about the writer and editor’s contribution to comic books as a medium. In practical terms, Denny O’Neil was a crucial figure in the evolution of Batman, one of the medium’s most enduring characters. During the seventies, he served as a stepping stone between the bright and chirpy “New Look” of the sixties and Frank Miller’s gritty reinvention of the eighties. He also served as editor of the line during the nineties, overseeing beloved events like Knightfall and No Man’s Land.

This is to say nothing of O’Neil’s larger contributions to comic books. During the seventies, he served as the conscience of mainstream comics, reinjecting the sort of politics that had been largely missing since the earliest days of Action Comics and Superman. With runs on Justice League and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, O’Neil sought to engage the iconic DC superheroes with contemporary America. It was often clumsy, but it was always powerful. This is without getting into O’Neil’s hugely influential runs on books like Iron Man or The Question.

However, this week was also the fifteenth anniversary of the release of Batman Begins. This was a hugely influential superhero film, kicking off what might be considered the genre’s crowning accomplishment. Christopher Nolan’s film is heavily indebted to O’Neil, with O’Neil’s comic The Man Who Falls serving as a touchstone for the film’s approach to Bruce Wayne. However, the film was also notable for offering the first live action interpretation of one of O’Neil’s most sizable additions to the Batman mythos: Ra’s Al Ghul.

Batman has one of the most crowded and iconic rogues’ galleries in comics, packed to the brim with recognisable faces: the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Mad Hatter, the Scarecrow, Mister Freeze, Clayface. It’s a crowded field. Writers and artists are constantly trying to add to that, to add their own new characters to the mix. Very few actually catch on, with arguably only Bane and Harley Quinn managing to reach the top tier within the last thirty years. This makes Ra’s Al Ghul all the more impressive.

In the past few years, Ra’s Al Ghul has been cemented as an essential part of the Batman mythos. Both Arrow and Gotham featured the character as a major antagonist, anchoring season-long arcs, played by Mathew Nable and Alexander Siddig. (Liam Neeson reportedly even considered reprising the role for Arrow, even if he couldn’t make the schedule work.) The character has also been a staple of animated adaptations, going back to Batman: The Animated Series and continuing through Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Beware the Batman.

Ra’s Al Ghul has become such a fundamental part of the larger Batman universe that it is hard to imagine it ever existed without him. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the enduring creative legacies of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, who first introduced him to the Caped Crusader in the early seventies. In hindsight, as with Bane, it’s easy to see why Ra’s Al Ghul has endured in the way that he has. He fills an important gap in the larger Batman mythos. However, it was the genius of O’Neil and Adams to recognise that gap in the first place.

That’s what makes the character so fantastic. Despite being a relatively late addition to the Dark Knight’s collection of foes, he seems like he always belonged there.

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Re-“Born Again”: Daredevil, Season Three, and the Limits of Textual Fidelity…

One of the more interesting aspects of the modern boom in geek culture is the increased emphasis on textual fidelity.

Much has been written about the high volume of adaptations, sequels, remakes and reboots that dominate contemporary popular culture. The trend is strong, even among this year’s prestige releases. A Star is Born is the third remake of the film, and there are many more stories besides. First Man is a story that covers well-worn ground, a modern American myth, albeit from a unique perspective. Suspiria is a remake of a beloved cult classic. Widows is an adaptation of a British television series. If Beale Street Could Talk… is taken from a James Baldwin novel.

However, it is also very revealing that so many modern adaptations of beloved properties are very much fixated on the idea of fidelity. “Faithfulness” has become a watchword for these adaptations, not just in terms of easter eggs, but in terms of basic construction. In its own way, this may perhaps be an extension of the emphasis on comic books and graphic novels as a key inspiration for modern blockbusters. Given how many comic book artists also work as storyboard artists in film, it is tempting to treat the source material as a storyboard, to adapt a panel into a still image.

This is an interesting approach, but one which often overlooks the actual act of adaptation as an art of itself. It is not enough to cobble together a film from a collection of familiar static images, and can occasionally lead to a very surreal and uncomfortable disconnect, with a filmmaker lifting very literally from their inspiration while also making something that bears little resemblance to the source material in any non-visual manner. The third season of Daredevil runs into this problem repeatedly, largely as a muddled attempt to bring Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Born Again to the screen.

Note: This article contains minor spoilers from the third season of Daredevil.

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Adversity in Diversity: Marvel’s Next Generation Heroes…

Much digital ink has already been spilled about the comments that David Gabriel made of the weekend.

Gabriel is the Vice-President of Sales at Marvel, and he was speaking to ICv2 about the company’s underwhelming performance in recent times. The company’s massive “All-New, All-Different” launch in late 2015 appears to have done little to stem the attrition, offering a brief boost that has not halted the decline. Addressing these concerns, Gabriel suggested one very clear reason for the audience’s lack of enthusiasm about these comics. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there.”

Gabriel’s statement has opened up a new front in the culture wars, drawing attention from a host of high-profile new sources not necessarily known for their history of comic book reporting or their understanding of the medium’s inner workings; The Guardian, The Independent, The Irish Times. In a very strange way, this was seen as real news, in a way that news inside (as opposed to “related to the multimedia franchises of”) the comic book industry rarely is. There was clearly a lot tied up in that interview given by an industry figure to an industry publication.

The reason that this story broke out so strongly is quite simple. This debate is part of a larger debate about representation in popular culture. It emerges in the same climate as the debates about cultural appropriation in Iron Fist and whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell. It arrives at a time when the public at large is increasingly attuned to the need for diversity of representation in media and diversity in talent. It was a story that was surprisingly important to a lot of people who don’t read comic books, because it resonated beyond comic books.

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The X-Files: Season 11 (IDW) (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

The X-Files: Season 11 is a relatively lean beast.

The X-Files: Season 10 seemed to struggle to map out a clear direction or identity for itself. This was most obvious in the context of the comic book’s mythology, as writer Joe Harris and his collaborators frequently found themselves revising and rewriting the mythology from one story to the next. All the elements introduced in Believers were reduced to a footnote in Monica & John. Although Gibson Praise made his first reappearance in the final pages of Believers, the mythology only truly galvinised around him over the course of Elders.

xfiles-endgames1

In contrast, The X-Files: Season 11 has a very clear idea of where it is going and room for a minimal amount of distractions along the way. While the art team on Season 10 changed quite frequently, the nine comic book issues that comprise Season 11 are all handled by the core team of writer Joe Harris, penciller Matthew Dow Smith and colourist Jordie Bellaire. There is a consistency and focus to the run that is striking. There is no time for exploration or improvisation. Everything serves its purpose in the context of the story being told.

This is a double-edged sword. While it does reduce the chance of an endearing standalone story like Chitter or Immaculate, it does afford the run a purity and energy that was somewhat lacking as Harris had to revise and rewrite his mythology while the revival miniseries moved closer and closer to public announcement. In some respects, Season 11 feels kind of like the version of The X-Files that some fans wanted when the revival was announced. It is an efficient attempt to resolve dangling plot threads and bring closure to the story being told.

xfiles-homeagain2

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The X-Files Deviations (IDW) #1 – Being and Time (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

Being and Time is not a good comic book.

There are a number of reasons why the comic doesn’t work, but the simple fact of the matter is that it has an interesting premise but does little of interest with that premise. Nevertheless, there is something quite intriguing the set-up, an “out-of-continuity” tale that offers a glimpse of a parallel universe where Fox Mulder was abducted in the place of his sister Samantha. More to the point, it seems entirely telling that the only supplemental X-Files comic to be published by IDW during the entirety of The X-Files: Season 11 was one entirely outside continuity.

What might have been.

What might have been.

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The X-Files: Season 11 (IDW) #6-8 – Endgames (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

With Endgames, it all comes to an end.

The grand epic story that writer Joe Harris had built across thirty-five issues of The X-Files: Season 10 and The X-Files: Season 11 comes to a close with this three-part story. Given that the default length of a mythology-heavy story in Season 10 was five issues, Endgames cannot help but feel somewhat truncated. However, there has always been a sense that Season 11 is winding down rather than ratcheting up.

Alien nation.

Alien nation.

In some ways, Endgames suffers from being overly ambitious. Harris reintroduced the faceless rebels into his mythology with My Name is Gibson and The X-Files Christmas Special 2015, but they feel like they crowd out what is otherwise a straightforward confrontation with Mulder and Scully squaring off against Gibson Praise. It is in some ways disappointing that all of Gibson’s plans build to a handful of trucks in the desert.

And, yet, in spite of that, there is something oddly charming about Endgames. The three-parter might be a compromised twist on the ending that Joe Harris originally envisaged for his massive epic, but it is still an ending.

Full circle.

Full circle.

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The X-Files (IDW) Christmas Special 2015 (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

Nothing gives a better sense of how compressed The X-Files: Season 11 is than the decision to incorporate The X-Files Christmas Special 2015 into the larger arc of the season, as a bridge between Mulder’s capture at the end of Home Again, his detention in My Name is Gibson, and his adventuring with Scully in Endgames. Although it might be possible for readers to smoothly jump from the climax of My Name is Gibson into the high-stakes action of Endgames, the events of The X-Files Christmas Special 2015 smooth the transition.

Arriving late in the run of The X-Files: Season 10, The X-Files Christmas Special 2014 felt almost like an “out of continuity” adventure that found the cast sharing the holiday season together in the apartment of Walter Skinner. The festive levity provided a nice contrast to the trauma regularly inflicted upon these characters, providing a much lighter story in the spirit of the season. In contrast, The X-Files Christmas Special 2015 struggles to balance the lighter tone expected of a Christmas special with the demands of the larger arc.

Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

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The X-Files: Season 11 (IDW) #5 – My Name is Gibson (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

It feels like Season 11 was barely getting started before it started winding down.

There is a leanness to Season 11, as if the eight-issue series exists primarily to wrap up all the loose ends spinning out of Elders so the series can be rebooted and relaunched in keeping with the new continuity established by My Struggle I. The new status quo set up in Cantus was striking. While the premise owed a lot to the set-up of Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II, putting Mulder on the run as a roving one-man freelance X-files division evoked The X-Files by way of Kung-Fu or The Incredible Hulk.

Bewitching.

Bewitching.

In some ways, the set-up felt like a striking homage to seventies pop culture. The wandering hero is a staple of pop culture in general, but American pop culture in particular. In the sixties, it was The Fugitive. In the eighties, it was The A-Team. Nevertheless, the set-up evokes the mood and feeling of the seventies, of a nation lost and discovering itself in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. Setting Mulder on that particular course was a very clever story hook. The X-Files owes a lot to seventies film and television, so this set-up felt strangely appropriate.

With that in mind, it feels somewhat disappointing that the new status quo comes to a close so quickly. At the end of Home Again, Mulder is taken into custody as a fugitive. With My Name is Gibson, Joe Harris begins aligning the pieces for the climax of his three-year run on Season 10 and Season 11. It seems like Season 11 is over before it has started, which seems quite disappointing given all of the promise on display.

Chess master.

Chess master.

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The X-Files: Season 11 (IDW) #2-4 – Home Again (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

Home Again is perhaps a great example of the overlap that existed between IDW’s monthly comic series and the revival miniseries.

News that Mulder and Scully were coming back to prime time television broke in March 2015, just as writer Joe Harris was wrapping up work on his Elders arc and bringing The X-Files: Season 10 to a close. While most of The X-Files: Season 10 had unfolded as a live action revival was in a state of limbo, things had solidified by the time that The X-Files: Season 11 was announced. If Season 10 was haunted by the possibility that a live action revival might usurp its claim to legitimacy, then Season 11 was overshadowed by the certainty of that same prospect.

Mama's home...

Mama’s home…

However, both the revival and the comic book series seem to exist trapped within a weird dialogue with one another. To be fair, this was apparent even in the context of Season 10. The use of Gibson Praise as the primary antagonist of the comic book was forced by Chris Carter’s desire to “save” William for use in the revival miniseries. It seems likely that the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s absence from (and perhaps even the Lone Gunmen’s continued presence in) Season 11 speaks to similar logistical concerns.

Nevertheless, Home Again provides a wry point of intersection between the comic book series and the revival miniseries. It is, after all, a title shared between both.

Burying the past...

Burying the past…

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The X-Files: Season 11 (IDW) #1 – Cantus (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

The X-Files: Season 11 is a truncated season, in more than one way.

While The X-Files: Season 10 ran for twenty-five issues with two annuals, a Christmas special and three tie-in miniseries, The X-Files: Season 11 is a more modest affair. The monthly series runs for eight issues, although there is a single Christmas special thrown in for good measure. More than that, there is a very clear condensed quality to the narrative. It feels like writer Joe Harris, along with artist Matthew Dow Smith and colourist Jordie Bellaire, are racing frantically towards the finish line.

See no evil.

See no evil.

This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, The X-Files: Season 11 was not the only big news to hit the fandom in February or March 2015. The creative team had done good work reviving the nineties science-fiction franchise, but news of a fresh season of X-Files comic books was always going to pale in comparison to news that Fox had managed to bring back Chris Carter along with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny for a six-episode miniseries to air less than one year later.

The X-Files: Season 11 was always going to exist in the shadow of the louder and showier revival. In some respects, the entire eight-issue series feels like a frantic attempt to wrap up all the dangling threads set up in that initial run. It feels very much like the publisher getting its house in orders before that classic theme music plays on prime-time once again. The X-Files: Season 11 is a somewhat modest affair. Although that modesty is somewhat endearing.

On the road again.

On the road again.

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