A Gotham City Sirens: Division Retro Review – Gotham City Stumble

***Retro Reviews are pieces of Primary Ignition‘s past (i.e. the old site) dug from the archives and returned to their rightful place. They’ve been minimally altered. The text has been cleaned up just a little, and I’ve updated the artistic credits to go beyond just the penciller. But this is mostly the content in its original form. At the end, I’ll throw in a bit of hindsight.***

TITLE: Gotham City Sirens: Division

AUTHOR: Peter Calloway
ARTISTS: Andres Guinaldo, Ramon Bachs. Cover by Guillem March.
INKERS: Lorenzo Ruggiero, Bachs,
COLORISTS: JD Smith
LETTERERS: Steve Wands, Dave Sharpe, Carlos M.Mangual, Travis Lanham, Raul Fernandez.
COLLECTS: Gotham City Sirens #2021, #2326
FORMAT: Paperback
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $14.99
RELEASED: March 7, 2012

By Rob Siebert
Kenosha Kicker. Polka! Polka! Polka!

Reading all 26 issues of Gotham City Sirens is kind of like dating a woman who’s really hot, but who you eventually realize has a lot of personality issues. Eventually you find yourself wondering whether the whole relationship was even worth it at all.

The final volume of this series sees Harley Quinn bound and determined to kill the Joker. She breaks into Arkham Asylum, causing a massive riot. Caught in the mix are Black Mask, Clayface, our Sirens, and even Batman/Bruce Wayne himself (“Anything involving The Joker I take care of personally.”) Amidst the chaos, Harley, Catwoman and Poison Ivy will be placed at odds. Allegiances are tested, and friendships may be broken beyond repair.

I have two major issues with this book, both of which I touched on in my review of the previous volume: The way Joker is drawn and the way Harley is written.

The problem with Guinaldo’s Joker is that it’s trying to mix the look of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight with what Grant Morrison did during his run on Batman. In all fairness, after Morrison’s run DC never came up with a definitive look for the Joker to match the events of those stories. As such, creators working on different books didn’t necessarily know how to portray him. As a result, we usually got something along the lines of the traditional Joker with a bullet-shaped scar in the middle of his forehead (shown above).

The Joker we get in Division looks, quite frankly, like a pasty-faced geezer with some smeared lipstick on his cheeks. Though Guinaldo does supply us with a pretty good manic Joker face every so often, this take on the character isn’t nearly as maniacally menacing as it should be. For yours truly this became a big annoyance as the story went on.

And then there’s Harley. This story takes her to a pretty grim, dark place, especially in the beginning. She’s got a lot of rage directed at the Joker, and as a result we get a lot of inner monologue that seems out of character to me…

“There’s a place. A place in my head. A place on the other side of happy-go-lucky. The one part of me that isn’t looking for the joke. In that dark place–lurks rage…when the laughter breaks down–and humor can’t quiet its hunger–the rage gets out. And then it runs the show.”

I reject this portrayal of Harley not because of principle, but execution. We’ve seen her get angry before. It’s to be expected from a crazy lady who loves a homicidal clown and commits crimes while dressed like a Commedia dell’arte character.

But in Division, Harley becomes a cold, calculated strategist and murderer. We get inside her head and follow her thought process as she systematically breaks into Arkham. This portrayal robs the character of some of her charm. We’re not supposed to be able to follow Harley’s mindset when she does these things. She’s insane. Is she, deep down, a good person who could potentially be saved? Yes. But her infatuation with the Joker has also placed her on a different plane of reality than the rest of us. The reason she can be so goofy, so sick and twisted, with such drastic emotional swerves, is that she’s not playing with the same deck the rest of us are. This book defies that notion by simply making Harley an overly emotional, hopelessly attached girlfriend in a clown suit. She looks sane.

And as we all know, this chick ain’t sane.

The book does have its moments, though. We spend a little time with Aaron Cash, the asylum’s head of security whom we met in the Arkham Asylum video game. We’re with him when he learns about The Joker’s role in the death of his infant son, which is simply haunting. The Arkham Asylum riot is given the right amount of weight by Calloway. He doesn’t play it off like an every day occurrence the way some writers do. There’s a nice aura of panic about it.

Gotham City Sirens started out on such a high note. Unfortunately the memory of how good the series was during that first seven months or so never stopped haunting it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hoping for this series to be something of an action/comedy, akin to what we sometimes saw in Batman: The Animated Series and Gotham Girls. No such luck. In the end, Gotham City Sirens was just like every other Batman book on the stands. And what’s the point of putting this oddball trio together if you’re not going to have some fun with it?

At one point in this book, Harley asks Ivy: “Did the three of us make sense as a team? Ever?” (shown above)

The answer is no. But that was where all the fun should have come from.

***In Hindsight***
I wish I could say my opinion had changed on this one. Paul Dini wrote a total of 10 issues, which are collected in the first and second volumes. If you want to check out this series, those are the books you need to read.

Email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com, or check us out on Twitter.

A Gotham City Sirens: Strange Fruit Retro Review – Hate that Joker!

***Retro Reviews are pieces of Primary Ignition‘s past (i.e. the old site) dug from the archives and returned to their rightful place. They’ve been minimally altered. The text has been cleaned up just a little, and I’ve updated the artistic credits to go beyond just the penciller. But this is mostly the content in its original form. At the end, I’ll throw in a bit of hindsight.***

TITLE: Gotham City Sirens: Strange Fruit
AUTHORS: Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway
ARTISTS: Andres Guinaldo, Jeremy Haun, Guillem March
INKERS: Lorenzo Luggiero, BIT, Walden Wong
COLORISTS: JD Smith, Tomeu Morey
LETTERER: Steve Wands, Travis Lanham, Dave Sharpe
COLLECTS: Gotham City Sirens #1419
FORMAT: Hardcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $22.99
RELEASED: August 16, 2011

By Rob Siebert
The same Rob from up top.

It was somewhere during this story that I gave up on Gotham City Sirens ever being the book I wanted it to be. As it started out as a title written by Paul Dini, I was hoping we’d get something more light-hearted, akin to the work Dini did with Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy on Batman: The Animated Series. Over the first several issues, we did get that. But it tapered off as different writers started to come on to the book.

Strange Fruit is fairly low on humor, and it’s the first trade in the series without Dini’s name on it, but a high-stakes storyline keeps the title from taking a steep plunge in quality.

The first two issues continue the story that was started in the last book. It’s about Poison Ivy helping an alien or something. In all honesty, my distaste for a random alien appearance in a Bat-book pretty much took me out of the story. It’s not terrible. But I wasn’t a fan.

We then move into a story in which Talia al Ghul and Zatanna are trying to stop a group of bad guys from targeting Catwoman so they can learn Batman’s true identity. What further complicates things is that Catwoman lied to Harley and Ivy, telling them she didn’t know his identity. Trust issues galore can be found in this story, which will lead to Harley making a VERY dramatic decision.

Something’s been nagging at me about Gotham City Sirens for awhile, and it traces back to the events of this book. The way Andres Guinaldo draws the Joker (see below) irritates me terribly. We only see him through sporadic flashbacks, but I’m consistently bothered with the way Guinaldo puts those Dark Knight-ish red etches at the corners of his mouth. He’s not the first artist to do it, but the way he does it is really distracting. They’re much too big. It looks like he’s smeared lipstick on his cheeks. I understand part of it is just Guinaldo’s style. But The Joker’s Dark Knight look doesn’t lend itself to that style.

The story with Zatanna and Talia isn’t the strongest I’ve ever seen, but it’s good. Both have been romantically linked to Bruce Wayne in the past, and those connections make for interesting storytelling. Selina and Zatanna also have a history, which adds to the fire.

While there are a few Harley Quinn moments that harken back to the tone the series started with, the book sets more of a traditional tone, which essentially makes it just like all the other Bat-books, which means it loses a huge part of its selling point. At least for me. I’m certainly not heartbroken this series won’t be part of the New 52 reboot.

***In Hindsight***
My mind about Andres Guinaldo’s Joker has not changed. Thankfully, that trend has died down in the years since.

At the time, I gave this book a 6/10. Upon re-reading, that feels about right. I liked that they played with Selina’s knowledge of Bruce’s identity. Though ironically this was post-Final Crisis, and the Batman we see in this book is Dick Grayson.

Email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com, or check us out on Twitter.

A Batman: The War of Jokes and Riddles Review – Or So We’re Told…

TITLE: Batman, Vol. 4: The War of Jokes and Riddles
AUTHOR: Tom King
PENCILLERS: Mikel Janin, Clay Mann
COLLECTS: Batman #2532
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $19.99
RELEASED: December 13, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The War of Jokes and Riddles is not what I expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But you come into it anticipating a big, bloody, multi-layered brawl between comic book supervillains. What we get is more character-driven. I almost always prefer something like that to a story that’s simply about people punching each other. But the vibe we got going into this was that it was akin to a big summer blockbuster. There’s a lot more to The War of Jokes and Riddles. While you’ll get some really great stuff, it’s not a hotbed of fighting and explosions.

In the early days of Batman’s career, the unthinkable happens. After losing to Batman so many times, the Joker no longer finds the world funny. Recognizing a similar problem in himself, the Riddler proposes an alliance to kill the Dark Knight once and for all. When the Joker gives him a violent rejection, all out war breaks out. Both the Joker and the Riddler recruit different villains to their side, with Gotham City as their battle field. The winner earns the right to kill Batman. How can our hero stop a war that’s being fought over him? And what happens to the city caught in the crossfire?

I like Joker and Riddler as rivals. They both have mischievous and playful sort of motifs. So it makes sense they’d want to outdo each other. Factor in each one having their own faction of villains, and the scope of this story becomes huge. They could very well have done a bunch of tie-in issues where the different characters fight each other. Scarecrow vs. Mad Hatter, Solomon Grundy vs. Killer Croc, Two-Face vs, Scarface, etc. Given how people gobble up Batman stuff, you’d think that would have been an easy cash-in.

Instead, we stay in the pages of Batman. That approach has it’s advantages, of course. But as a result, what feels like a very expansive story winds up being confined. Much is left to exposition. We gloss over the whole recruitment process, and why certain characters choose Joker or Riddler’s side. We don’t see most of the big battles. We’re told what territory each side has. While there’s something to be said for not getting bogged down in too many details, it seems like half the fun of a story like this is watching all the characters butt heads. That’s a giant missed opportunity.

We do, however, see Deathstroke vs. Deadshot. Sort of. In theory, it’s a hell of a fight. But even that fails to deliver, as it’s jammed so tightly into the second half of issue #28. What’s more, the fight stretches logic pretty thin even by comic book standards. The two initially try to snipe each other, but on their first and only shots, their bullets collide. They then proceed to fight for five days, killing 62 people in the process. I get the artistic advantage of leaving it to the reader’s imagination. But they could have dedicated an entire story to Deathstroke vs. Deadshot. This fight could be an event comic on its own. So to be told about it instead of seeing it is frustrating.

On the plus side, almost everybody looks great. Mikel Janin gives us an almost twisted blend of realism and caricature. His Joker, for instance, has a pointed nose and in this story sports an exaggerated frown. But the art is so detailed and the colors so gorgeously rendered that it evokes real life. It’s often fascinating to look at, especially because his Joker seems heavily influenced by Brian Bolland’s work on The Killing Joke. The one character hurt by this approach is the Riddler, who inexplicably looks like John Cena.

Author Tom King frames The War of Jokes and Riddles around Bruce Wayne’s present-day marriage proposal to Selina Kyle. He tells her this story, as he apparently did something horrible during the war that could effect her decision to marry him. The reveal is a good one and makes sense.

But there’s also a larger issue that the story touches on, but doesn’t bring any resolution to. There’s an argument to be made that the real villain in all of this is Batman himself. These two groups of insane people are waging war over HIM. While they’re fighting to decide who gets to kill him, dozens of innocent people are being killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In telling Selina this story, he’s trying to get absolution for something horrible he supposedly did. But it seems like he should want forgiveness for his part in all this. Although to be fair, the King does touch on something like that in the final scene…

Bruce also makes every effort to bring the violence to a halt, including the bizarrely entertaining dinner sequence that makes up the entirety of issue #29. Bruce Wayne invites virtually his entire rogues gallery into his home for a big, fancy, multi-course meal. The idea is for Bruce to servers a mediator and bring things to a resolution. The visual spectacle of seeing all these comic book supervillains together in a normal environment is almost worth the cover price on its own. It reminds me of one of the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale Batman books. But then we dive deeper with both Joker and Riddler. How they’d kill Batman, and what they think of each other. You’ve also got the internalization of Bruce as he sits between them and listens to it all, silently and subtlety trying to maneuver Gotham out of harm’s way. At face value, the whole thing is almost absurd. But once you dive into it, it becomes one of the most delightful Batman character studies of the last decade.

Janin is also on fire in this issue. He has to draw three characters in the same position for several pages. But despite having to draw several consecutive panels of, for instance, the Joker sitting in a chair eating dinner (shown below), there’s almost no panel duplication. There’s a natural flow to it. You believe their body language. It’s beautiful.

Stuck in the middle of all this is D-list villain Kite Man. He becomes the unlikely focus for two interlude issues drawn by Clay Mann. As he plays a role in the finale, it’s called for. It also doubles as an origin story. King tries to set him up as a relatable, down on his luck father who has fallen in with a horrible crowd and pays the ultimate price. I like how King incorporates him toward the end. But I’m not sure we needed two full issues dedicated to Kite Man. Issue #27 gives us all we need, so issue #30 feels mostly like filler. King also attempts to create the catchphrase: “Kite Man. Hell yeah.” Doesn’t work.

The War of Jokes and Riddles wound up being a mixed bag. We didn’t get a war as much as we got moments from a war. The beginning, the end, and the important moments in between. That doesn’t fill all of our dramatic needs in terms of this being a big, violent, bloody fight between crazy people. At one point we see a  bunch of pictures of people who’ve died. But we don’t see where or how they died. There’s a frustrating gap there which leaves you wanting more than the book delivers.

On the flip side, this is some of the best work Mikel Janin has ever done. The War of Jokes and Riddles should absolutely be turned into one of those oversized hardcovers DC puts out. It deserves to be admired for years to come. Tom King also gives us his best character work yet. He illustrates a tremendous understanding of how Batman, the Joker, and the Riddler think. So when he puts them together it feels very genuine. It’s the same kind of magic that made The Vision work so well.

King does have the magic in him, doesn’t he? It’s just a question of how often we see it.

For more of Tom King’s Batman, check out Vol. 1: I Am Bane, Vol. 2: I Am Suicide, Vol. 3: I Am Bane, and Batman/The Flash: The Button

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter, or at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition.

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