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Grant Morrison’s Run on Action Comics (Review/Retrospective)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

On paper, Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’ Action Comics should have been a slam dunk.

The title was announced as part of DC’s “new 52” relaunch, a resetting of the comic book giant’s continuity beginning in September 2011. Designed to revitalise the line, shoring up sales numbers and providing a clear point of entry, the “new 52” was clearly intended as a “jumping on” point for new and lapsed comic fans. It was bold and radical, an even greater departure for the company than their reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1986. The comic book publisher gave themselves a blank slate.

Wow, he IS more powerful than a locomotive...!

Wow, he IS more powerful than a locomotive…!

In theory, this was a great idea; anything was possible and everything was on the table. In practice, the execution was more muddled; the massive experiment curtailed by a very conservative aesthetic. In many respects, the “new 52” felt like more of the same; familiar mid-tier talent working on familiar mid-tier ideas. The most interesting books were those that dared to do things differently; Scott Snyder inverting Alan Moore’s brilliant twist on Swamp Thing made for iconoclastic reading, as did Brian Azzarello’s ground-up reimagining of Wonder Woman.

In contrast, a lot of the line felt like hedging. Hellblazer was cancelled so that John Constantine could be dragged under the corporate umbrella in Justice League Dark, all in the name of coporate synergy. The Wildstorm characters were ported over into mainstream continuity, in spite of the fact that they were largely redundant or incompatible. Instead of courting either exciting new talent or industry veterans, the company had difficulty drawing top-tier talent. Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld were among the relaunch’s heavy hitters.

... And what was that about speeding bullets?

… And what was that about speeding bullets?

To be fair, there were bright spots. But the ideas and concepts that were interesting were frequently hobbled by the demands of the publisher. All-Star Western was diminished by having to tie to Gotham City continuity, while attempts at genre diversity in books like Demon Knights or I, Vampire were under-promoted. Emphasis was placed squarely on monthly print sales numbers, with little patience for books to grow their audiences whether online or through collected editions.

In spite of all the confusion and chaos of the relaunch, Grant Morrison writing Action Comics was the cause of considerable excitement. Morrison was one of few comic book writers who could legitimately be described as a superstar, arguably with a higher profile outside mainstream comics than executives Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. Having Morrison on a monthly book was a big deal, particularly a monthly book as important to the company’s legacy as Action Comics. (Then again, the relaunch also chose to put Tony Daniel on Detective Comics, so there’s that.)

Happily never after...

Happily never after…

More than that, the book represented something of a homecoming for Morrison. Although the character of Superman had struggled with issues of relevance in the twenty-first century, Morrison had been the architect of one of the character’s most beloved stories. All-Star Superman is widely regarded as one of the best Superman stories ever published. Having its author writing a monthly book as part of the relaunch was a big deal. Following high-profile misfires like New Krypton or Grounded, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to put Superman back on the right course.

In many respects, Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics typifies the sort of push-and-pull at the publisher as part of the relaunch. The great ideas smothered by corporate mandates, the tension between familiarity and novelty, the burden of expectation even while trying to chart a new course. For better or worse, Action Comics could be seen as the flagship of DC’s “new 52” initiative. This seems entirely appropriate, given the title’s historical significance to DC comics.

Running jump...

Running jump…

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David V. Reed’s Run on Batman – Where Were You On The Night Batman Was Killed? (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.

David V. Reed enjoyed a long run on Batman. While he’s probably more infamous for his rather mean-spirited attack on Batman artist and co-creator Bill Finger in the pages of The Amazing World of DC Comics only a year after Finger passed away, Reed did some interesting things with the character and world of Batman. Perhaps the most notable of these stories is the four-part Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?, an ambitious four-part story offering multiple-choice takes on the death of Batman.

It could be argued that Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? has been a very influential Batman story. David V. Reed’s four-part saga sets up a structure that has been emulated quite a bit over the history of the Caped Crusader. For example, Almost Got ‘Im from Batman: The Animated Series follows a similar structure, with four Batman villains boasting about almost killing Batman. And Neil Gaiman and Adam Kubert’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? features many different deaths for Batman.

Long live the Batman!

Long live the Batman!

There are even faint echoes of Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? to be found in the pages of Grant Morrison’s extended Batman run – populated as it is with replacement Batmen, cabals of evil villains boasting about their crimes, and the almost-but-not-quite death of the Dark Knight. Published in 1977, Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? is a four-parter that seems quite a bit ahead of its time, if a little clumsy in execution.

It’s a decidedly goofy concept, executed in a decidedly goofy manner, but it is also quite wry and astute and perhaps even a little prescient.

Batman drops in...

Batman drops in…

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Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Run on Batman Incorporated – Demon Star & Gotham’s Most Wanted (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.

Between September 2006 and July 2013, Grant Morrison crafted his epic Batman saga from the ashes of Infinite Crisis. Over the course of seven years, the Scottish author re-worked and re-imagined the Caped Crusader, boldly trying to condense the character’s convoluted and sprawling history into a single narrative. Morrison pulled elements from across the character’s continuity – including stories believed wiped out by continuity reboots and existing as alternatives or “what-ifs.”

To describe Grant Morrison’s Batman epic as ambitious doesn’t begin to do it justice. It is a story that pushed the character out of what had been his comfort zone since the eighties and nineties. He made Bruce Wayne a father; he killed Bruce Wayne off; he banished Batman to the dawn of time and forced him to fight his way back to the present; he made Dick Grayson into Batman; he turned Batman into a franchise so that it might fight twenty-first century crime.

Beware the Batman...

Beware the Batman…

These are all seismic shifts to the status quo, and don’t necessarily conform to what people think about when they imagine a typical Batman story. The character of Bruce Wayne and his world changed dramatically. The very first issue of Morrison’s Batman run featured Batman capturing the last of his classic villains, allowing the Caped Crusader a change to face larger and more existential threats.

It is quite telling that Morrison’s storytelling became the driving force of Batman continuity, with DC spinning books and stories off from his central premise. Scott Snyder’s first Batman epic was The Black Mirror, a story featuring Dick Grayson as Batman, as part of Morrison’s status quo. When the company relaunched Batman & Robin as part of the “new 52”, it featured Damian Wayne as Robin, another innovation introduced by Morrison.

It's all connected...

It’s all connected…

Despite this sense that everything was changing, it seemed inevitable that everything would inevitably be reset. You can only change an iconic character like Batman so much, after all. If you bend Batman too far out of shape, he must inevitably snap back into his classic mould. It’s not inherently a bad thing – “Batman and Robin will never die!” to quote Batman R.I.P., and the characters endure because they revert to archetypes – but it does lend a sense of tragedy to everything.

Coming in the wake of the “new 52” reboot that represented an attempt to reset DC continuity back to its most archetypal configuration, it makes sense that Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham would write the second volume of Batman Incorporated as a tragedy. Morrison would announce his intention to step away from mainstream brand-name superhero stories in the wake of Batman Incorporated, and you can sense some of that fatigue in this story about how everything eventually gets set back to zero.

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

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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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Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyer’s Run on Batman – Dark Knight, Dark City (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.

Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyer’s Dark Knight, Dark City shot to prominence when writer Grant Morrison incorporated some of its elements into his expansive Batman epic. This three-issue 1990 Batman story arc garnered a lot of attention and even earned a reprint in 2011 as part of the DC Comics Presents line. That is certainly deserved, as Dark Knight, Dark City is a genuinely classic Batman story.

Milligan hits on a lot of the themes that he would develop over his subsequent Detective Comics run. There’s a sense that the writer is scripting a version of Batman that owes at least as much to the tradition of horror comics as it does to traditional superhero narratives. Indeed, Milligan could easily have reworked most of his Batman stories for Hellblazer with only a minimum amount of changes.

Suit up...

Suit up…

Portraying Batman as a strange and surreal character inhabiting a strange and surreal world, Milligan paved the way for a lot of occult weirdness that would become a fixture of the Batman line into the nineties and beyond. It is very difficult to imagine Grant Morrison’s extended run without Milligan’s influence. It could also be argued that Milligan paved the way for the distinctive and stylised portrayal of the Dark Knight in Doug Moench and Kelley Jones’ mid-nineties run.

Haunting, thoughtful and influential, Dark Knight, Dark City is an underrated masterpiece.

Who is afraid of the big, bad bat...

Who is afraid of the big, bad bat…?

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X-Men: The End – Book Three: Men and X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Chris Claremont struggles with endings. As a writer, Claremont works very well within the structure of a continuing narrative. His stories tend to resolve in such a way that story threads dangle, allowing him to pick up those threads for more stories. Claremont is very good at telling an on-going story, at keeping the wheels spinning and moving. One story leads to another, and that story leads to another. As The Dark Phoenix Saga wraps up Jean Grey’s arc, it introduces Kitty Pryde.

This isn’t really a problem on mainstream comic books. After all, Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for seventeen years, and it was structured as an on-going and evolving story. There are obvious “cut-off” points for certain sections of his run – The Dark Phoenix Saga and Inferno come to mind – but they never feel like they resolve everything. There are always just enough plot points carried over for the book to keep moving, to the point where saying “this run ends here” would involve chopping off significant story points.

.. in the name of love...

.. in the name of love…

Claremont’s difficulty with endings is reflected with the closure of his run on the titles in the early nineties. He left Uncanny X-Men with a minimum of ceremony. The book was handed from Chris Claremont to Fabian Nicieza in the middle of The Muir Island Saga. Claremont’s big goodbye to the title was the opening three-issue arc on adjectiveless X-Men, a story that found itself functioning as both a beginning and an end. In those three issue, it seemed like the only character arc Claremont resolved was that of Magneto.

So, it isn’t a surprise that Men and X-Men is a glorious mess. It is essentially one giant and protracted fight sequence between the X-Men and Shi’ar, drawing in cameos from across the breadth of X-Men history. The fact that this should be the last story told featuring these characters feels a little arbitrary, with quite a lot of Men and X-Men feeling like Claremont is running through a laundry list of things he needs to resolve before the curtain drops.

Flight of the Phoenix...

Flight of the Phoenix…

At the same time, there is something quite charming about Men and X-Men, as Claremont seems to suggest that this final gigantic superhero battle actually means very little in the grand scheme of things. Various plot points and threats resolve in whimpers rather than bangs, while Claremont suggests that this is an elaborate six-issue misdirection. We are not looking at what we should be looking at.

It’s the smaller moments that feel earned, even if the larger story around them is a complete mess.

One last stab at fixing everything...

One last stab at fixing everything…

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Grant Morrison & Ian Gibson’s Avengers – Steed & Mrs. Peel (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

I feel a little bit cheeky describing this as “Grant Morrison’s Avengers.” After all, it’s this sort of confusion that led Disney to somewhat clumsily try to rebrand last year’s Avengers as Marvel’s Avengers Assemble in Ireland and the UK, afraid that easily-confused cinema-goers might be confused by the absence of the character my better half describes as “umbrella man”, while those more emersed in classic Britannia will recognise him as John Steed.

In fact, the comic was actually branded as Steed and Ms. Peel to avoid confusion, both in the original 1990 Eclipse miniseries and in the recent BOOM! studios reissue. That said, while legal matters prevent the release of a comic called “The Avengers”, BOOM! have hardly been shy about the original television show, with advertisements for Mark Waid’s recent revival teasing “the original Avengers” and “the original Hell Fire Club.” (Which is a little misleading itself, since the Hell Fire Club is actually a much older (real life) institution. Ah well.)

Still, Morrison and Gibson’s Steed & Mrs. Peel is a delightfully fun romp very much in the style of the original show. It is, by no means, the smartest or most essential of Morrison’s work – but it’s still clever and betrays an obvious affection for the source material.

Wheel of misfortune...

Wheel of misfortune…

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