Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Batman Year 100 by Paul Pope Review - An OK Dystopian Elseworlds Adventure

Set in 2039 (100 years after Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 in 1939), Gotham has become a police state and the overbearing authorities know everything about everyone. A cop is killed and Batman is suspected as he was at the scene - an obvious frame job. It’s also the first appearance he has made in public for years and people have forgotten his existence - is the mythological Batman real? He is nonetheless hunted by psychic cops, robot dogs, and other futuristic crime-fighting tools. In the course of finding the real killer, Batman discovers that there’s a doomsday weapon being sold on the black market by the (clearly corrupt) cops in charge. Will he stop them in time...?

Year 100 is a very uneven book that I really wanted to like. There’s the dystopian future angle, and the attention-grabbing title adding to the mystery of whether Batman is still Bruce Wayne (it couldn’t be - could it?), both of which I liked, but while this is an initially exciting story, as it goes on Paul Pope keeps readers at a distance from the characters and this world by revealing very little information about them.

How did things get to this point - Gotham as a police state? What event triggered such an extreme reaction? If this is Bruce Wayne as Batman, how is that possible - Wayne would be somewhere around 120-150 years old, so who is Batman? What happened to his fortune? What of the rogues like the Joker? What happened to the Justice League? We’re never told the answers to any of these questions.

So it’s quite a limited view of the future. On the one hand that’s great because we don’t need someone there literally explaining the history of this Gotham, but on the other hand a hint as to the origins of this dystopian future would’ve been appreciated for a more satisfactory reading experience. As such, Pope’s narrative deftness makes the book feel that much easier to forget and become less involved with because we’re never given the chance to inhabit this world. 

Also, I found that the plot ended up becoming more of a hindrance than an enjoyable story. At first it’s a fast-paced, exciting story of Batman on the run and then after about 100 pages, Pope decides to explain the plot by having the reader follow Batman figure out what’s going on, step by tedious step. It’s an overlong sequence where for nearly 40 interminable pages Batman sits in a room and talks with Robin and Oracle. Exposition, exposition, exposition - it really puts the brakes on the story while also being really boring to read. I get that the reader needed to be caught up to the point of the book, but what a clunky way of doing it. 

Some people have complained about Pope’s art but I loved it. It’s different, it’s fluid (which is an excellent quality to have when it comes to the action), and he somehow manages to make machinery feel organic! The Batmobile in this book is an awesome tricked-out motorcycle that, when not being used, hangs in such a way (dripping oil like sweat) as to look like a giant sleeping bat - it’s a really cool effect. Pope also has Batman live up to his name, making him look animalistic in fight scenes, wearing sharp false teeth, and also on the cover where he looks almost rodent-like perched atop a pair of chimneys. I also liked that his mask is similar to the original Bob Kane design while also looking like something a luchadore would wear, and the fact that the cops of the future look like hockey players with colourful uniforms instead of boring black kevlar. 

I would’ve liked Pope to have at least hinted at Batman’s identity, but I’m fine that he didn’t. I get that it’s not so much about the identity behind the mask as the mask itself as a symbol of justice and hope for the disenfranchised and that it doesn’t matter who wears the cowl, just that someone wears it and exemplifies the ideals of Batman. The book is basically about Batman fighting the Man in a futuristic setting - dystopian future meets Hong Kong action movie - and that’s fine as far as it goes.

I did find the ending a bit silly with Pope using the kind of ending that’s been used too many times - Batman tells the baddies that he knows all about their plan and then the Bad Guy says: “How did you know?” to which Batman grins and says “I didn’t but you just confirmed it for me”. Ugh. It’s that smarmy playground-ish kind of ending that doesn’t befit the World’s Greatest Detective - though it does add credence to the idea that this isn’t Bruce Wayne after all as I think Bruce would’ve figured it out himself rather than guessed.

Overall, Year 100 isn’t a great Batman book but it’s not a bad one. It has enough in it to make it worth picking up but it felt overlong by half, the ending was disappointing, and there were simply too many unanswered questions that stopped it from being a satisfactory read. It’s got some great art and is an interesting Elseworlds concept, but it’s not an essential Batman book to read.

Also included is the 18 page short Pope wrote/drew back in 1997 featuring a German Jewish Baruch Wane/Batman in 1939 Berlin, fighting against Nazi oppression in the lead up to the war’s outbreak.

Batman Year 100

Avengers, Volume 1: Avengers World by Jonathan Hickman Review

I really like Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects and he strikes me as a good ideas guy who puts together really cool designs like logos in his books, but, man, try as I do, I just cannot warm to any of his superhero comics. They’re all filled with what seem like big ideas - “gods” creating life, high evolution, solving galaxy-sized problems, looking at the universe as a whole - but reading it is just the blandest, most boring experience. 

The comics almost always feature narratives along the lines of creation, space, the universe, and abstract characters like a New Adam or the Mother of the Universe. The first three issues of Avengers World has a trio of World Engineers who’ve lived for millions (or billions or whatever, it doesn’t matter) years creating and destroying worlds and they’ve now set their sights on Earth to terraform into a new utopia, wiping out humanity. Except they’re on Mars which they’re turned green with their alien tech and have decided to bombard Earth with organic bombs a la the giant bugs in Starship Troopers. 

And then we get to the Avengers who teleport over to Mars to fight these god-like aliens. In what world do characters like Black Widow, Hawkeye, or Falcon stand a chance against these ridiculously powerful creatures? Even Cap, the team leader, really shouldn’t make a dent on any of the alien creatures, throwing his shield at them or no. The only ones who could make a difference would be Thor, Hulk, Hyperion - the truly powerful members of the Avengers. It’s farcical to believe that every member of the Avengers can make a difference in this scenario - even fan favourites like Spider-man and Wolverine seem useless in this story. 

I get that Hickman is “going bigger” with this storyline but his additions to the team lineup render almost all of them useless. I mean, the Mother of the Universe? Why even bother having any other member on the team? Considering her powers are limitless and insanely powerful, it seems wholly pointless having someone like Spider Woman on her side as her contribution is completely diminished. 

Hickman’s bland storytelling, which involves characters talking abstractly about, what become, boring concepts - we’ve got to get bigger, we’ve got to get smarter, etc. over and over - makes for a truly tedious read. After the world-building aliens in the first three issues, the second half is a cobbled-together assortment of random space battles and setting up another Hickman-esque event storyline called The White Event. I’m trying but I really can’t connect with his superhero stuff - reading this book makes me feel that he doesn’t care at all and that he cares a lot all at the same time. I know, it’s really weird. 

But honestly, I did not care about anything in this book even for a moment. Big ideas, sure I guess - space adventures, god aliens - but executed so poorly as to render interesting ideas, dull. Once again, Hickman fails to interest with another superhero book. The one time I enjoyed the book was looking at the variant covers gallery and seeing Deadpool dancing gangnam style. If only that had been this book...

Avengers Volume 1: Avengers World

Why The Long Halloween Is The Most Overrated Batman Book Ever

Want to know exactly why The Long Halloween is the most overrated Batman book ever? Here's a link to an article I wrote explaining the reasons: http://whatculture.com/comics/7-reasons-why-batman-the-long-halloween-is-the-most-overrated-batman-book-ever.php

And if you think all I do is complain about stuff, here's a link to the best Superman books I highly recommend seeking out, especially as this is a Superman summer with Man of Steel just around the corner! Full list here: http://whatculture.com/comics/8-super-essential-superman-books-you-must-read.php

And more generally, here's a link to all the articles I write for WhatCulture! They're mostly comics reviews and all are fantastic: http://whatculture.com/author/noel-thorne

If you want to know what a positive review by me looks like, here's the link to my review of Batman Incorporated, Volume 1: Demon Star: http://whatculture.com/comics/batman-incorporated-volume-1-demon-star-review-grant-morrison-and-chris-burnham.php

And Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life As A Weapon: http://whatculture.com/comics/hawkeye-volume-1-my-life-as-a-weapon-review-matt-fraction.php

Both of which are a ton of fun.

Here's a link to my latest review, slamming Aquaman, Volume 2: The Others: http://whatculture.com/comics/aquaman-volume-2-the-others-review-geoff-johns-and-ivan-reis.php

As Punk Rock As Avril Lavigne: A Review of Punk Rock Jesus by Sean Murphy

I feel like I should qualify this review as it deals with a major religion in a clearly blasphemous way and I wouldn’t want anyone thinking I didn’t like this book for religious reasons: I’m not a Christian and I’m not religious in any way. If I had to label myself anything it’d be secular humanist. 

Ok, now that that’s out of the way: Punk Rock Jesus is a dumb book. It’s dumb like Point Break except it’s not nearly as funny and I get the feeling it’s trying to be intellectual and profound which makes it worse. 

But let’s start properly. A TV company creates a show called J2 where they use 2000 year old DNA from the Shroud of Turin to clone Jesus. They select a telegenic virgin female and impregnate her with the DNA and the pregnancy, birth, the subsequent years raising the child, everything, is filmed for reality TV. The baby boy - Chris - lives a kind of Truman’s Show life where he grows up on the J2 island in front of the cameras. That is until his mum dies, he hits puberty, and he discovers punk music. He becomes the frontman of a punk band called The Flak Jackets and rebels against Christianity by becoming an atheist.

Here are my problems with this book: 

How would a TV company get away with keeping a young woman and her baby prisoner? That’s the premise for most of the book. Gwen (Chris’s mum) eventually becomes sick of the TV show and wants to leave but she’s stopped at every turn, essentially becoming a hostage. The cameras show her desperately begging to leave but no-one, not the government, no-one at all, allows her to leave. So we’re supposed to believe that a TV company is allowed to suspend human rights in America and no-one is going to say boo? 

Gwen trying to escape is, by the way, fully half of the book! The first half is all about Gwen trying to escape this super-Christian island. We only see the Punk Rock Jesus at the halfway point of this book. 

We’re also supposed to believe this Jurassic Park crap about cloning Jesus from the Shroud of Turin and then we’re supposed to believe that everyone buys into this! Look, we’ve really cloned Jesus, this kid is definitely him, don’t look at any evidence or think for a second, just believe us - oh you do? Great. The people that populate this world are monumentally thick and gullible. 

All of the Christians are one-dimensional caricatures. To even say they’re characters is giving Sean Murphy way more credit than he deserves. Murphy is simply a terrible writer - he doesn’t understand nuance or subtlety, so his characters, all of them, are pathetic creations that are totally unconvincing. All Christians are apparently super-crazy, gun-bearing, sign-toting loonies, and atheists are all intelligent, bar none. Like I said I’m not a Christian but I thought this was such a broad and unbelievably dumb swipe that I felt bad for any Christians reading this tripe.

The TV exec who set this J2 show up, Slate, is of course insanely evil. This is guy who in public is transparently “nice” and behind the scenes is literally trying to drown babies! All for the sake of ratings. Murphy just has no idea. The other characters are just as moronic. Thomas, the ex-IRA bodyguard, is maybe the one guy who’s got more than one dimension to him though that only manifests in the final act - up until then he’s your basic unstoppable tough guy character. 

But the worst character of all is Chris himself. Besides being this obnoxious teen who decides to become a punk rocker, we’re supposed to believe that a 14/15 year old is the perfect voice for a band. Yeah, pick a kid whose voice is modulating from high to deep - that’s who you want as a singer! There’s also this laughable scene where an intellectual (and an atheist of course) says, quite seriously, “Chris’s anti-theist lyrics are incredibly well-written and extremely moving - clearly the product of his massive IQ.” What’s that writing rule - show, don’t tell? So rather than actually write some “well written and extremely moving” lyrics, Murphy has a “credible” character tell us that the lyrics are “well written and extremely moving”. Hack writing alert! 

In an even more laughable scene is Chris’ realisation of a world outside Christianist dogma - the only world he’s known up til now because crazy-evil Slate has kept all that information from him and yet at this convenient point in the plot, is unable to stop Chris from finding out about Darwin, etc. We get this potted history (1 page) of thinkers from Galileo to Lincoln to Darwin to Carl Sagan - Chris literally says “Sagan was awesome!” and Sagan is drawn way cooler than he actually was. Hmm, I wonder how we as readers are supposed to feel about Carl Sagan?

Chris’ “shocking” speech where he comes out as a non-Christian is an intellectually lightweight gumbo of generalisations and banal phrases: “Religion is dangerous - it impedes human progress like a virus. It’s a global opiate for the masses, it numbs us with feel-good magical thinking and inflates our egos”. Gee, thank Chris, the veil has been lifted and I see clearly now for the first time.

I won’t say how it ends but the story gets even stupider culminating in a scene that’s as anticlimactic as you can get. I was left wondering what book other critics had been reading. These are actual quotes about the book: “Belongs in the same league as Watchmen, it’s a complete game changer” - Craveonline; “Sean’s work is flawless...” - Pop Matters; “In more ways than one, this is a legend in the making” - Comic Book Resources. Well, I know which sites to avoid for comic book opinion at least. Suffice it to say, they’re all hopelessly wrong.

I enjoyed Sean Murphy’s work with Grant Morrison on Joe the Barbarian and his artwork in this book is fantastic - it’s easily the best quality of the book and it’s saving grace - but he just can’t write. He has no clue how to create character, the dialogue was stilted - every page I was mentally rolling my eyes at yet another badly written conversation - and he has no sense of plotting. The book ambles along at the best of times and the story is muddled and frequently boring. It’s a 222 page book that feels twice as long.

I don’t know what this book was supposed to be about - some kind of representation of Murphy’s own journey through his feelings on religion maybe - but from what I read I can say this is one of the least affecting, most boring Jesus-returns stories I’ve ever read. If you want to read a good Jesus returns story, check out John Niven’s “The Second Coming” where Jesus comes back and goes on an American Idol-type show, which is genuinely funny, clever and moving. Or even check out James Frey’s flawed but interesting “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible” where Jesus returns as a homeless man told from the perspectives of his various followers.

This book is about as punk rock as Avril Lavigne, as edgy as a spoon and a crap comic to boot.

Punk Rock Jesus