A Twisted Dark, Vol. 1 Review – The Horror in Your Head

TITLE: Twisted Dark, Vol. 1
AUTHOR: Neil Gibson
PENCILLERS: Atula Siriwardane, Caspar Wijngaard, Heru Prasetyo Djalal, Jan Wijngaard, Ant Mercer, Dan West
FORMAT:
Softcover
PUBLISHER:
TPub
PRICE: 
$14.99
RELEASED: August 2014

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Twisted Dark is a series that lives up to its name in more ways than one.

From the UK-based TPub and author/editor/founder Neil Gibson, Twisted Dark is a collection of short psychological horror and suspense tales. This is indeed the twisted and dark underbelly of the human psyche. We’ll meet Rajeev, who rises to power in Dubai through manipulation and deceit. There’s Soames, a patient in a psychiatric ward convinced everything around him is a twisted game. We also have Ashbjorn, whose fractured mind is trying to shield him from the unspeakable pain of his horrific reality. These stories and characters stand alone for now. But they all exist in the shared universe of Twisted Dark. They may not know it, but their paths have already started to cross…

What I really enjoy about Twisted Dark is that it showcases the versatility of the black and white comic book. You’ve got so many different methods and textures on display here, at times from the same artist. Caspar Wijngaard, for instance, does “Routine.” We see deep blacks, a lot of jagged lines, and a high black and white contrast. He also does the cover, so it’s the style you expect when you open the book. But then later, we get “Cocaina,” in which he lowers the contrast, and starts playing with grays. His brother Jan Wijngaard also gets to show off with two stories. I would classify his style as softer than Caspar’s, and bit sketchier. It’s one thing to do that between different titles. It’s another to do it within a single volume, and is a real credit to both men as artists.

I stumbled across this book at C2E2 this year. It’s got a three-page opening story that provides a hell of a hook, and an appetizer for the book’s brand of storytelling. I love that first page (shown right). There’s a haunting sense of foreboding in the art alone. And then you read that lone bit of text at the bottom. Now that‘s a hook.

Most of these stories have a narrator with a very storybook-ish voice. Everything’s very plainly spoken, and seemingly unbiased. There’s a haunting quality in that. Especially after we see all these awful and disturbing things happen. We have no indication that the narrator is part of the horror itself in any way. But he’s your messenger, so you develop a subtle fear of him (her?) as well.

Once you hit the second or third story, you inevitably recognize a pattern to the storytelling. It’s the classic twist take on horror. (Twisted Dark…get it?) At some point in the story, you learn that your main character isn’t who you thought they were, or that they were being deceived somehow. Evil and/or bloodshed commences. You learn not to get too invested in who you’re seeing, and you’re always on the look-out for the swerve. This has obvious pros and cons. When you have an anthology of twist stories, they almost aren’t even twists anymore. They’re stories that adhere to a format. “Windowpayne” comes at about the midpoint of the book, and is about an entrepreneur with a facial scar who creates windowpanes that double as a sort of television. The character is interesting, but the story has an ending you can see a mile away because of the story patterns.

In apparent recognition of that pattern, the majority of the book’s subsequent twists become a little less jarring, though often no less violent. “Munchausen’s Little Proxy,” which is about a woman addicted to surgery, is more of a character piece than a narrative with a twist. Ditto for “The Pushman,” about a train worker from Tokyo. As there are several more volumes of Twisted Dark, I’m curious to see how the stories are positioned going forward.

On that note, all these stories and characters apparently exist in the same universe, and there are connections to be found. Perhaps I’m simply not eagle-eyed enough to spot them, as none were apparent to me as I closed the book. But I don’t doubt they’re there.

I appreciate the psychological component of Twisted Dark. While there’s no shortage of violence, they aren’t stories about violence, or gore, or monsters, or any of that. Twisted Dark recognizes that the scariest place of all is the human mind…

There’s an argument to be made that “The Routine” is the book’s best tale. It’s got a very horror-ish look, and it’s the first major twist we see, so it’s the most intense. But the character that gets the most development is Rajeev, by virtue of being the only one who’s story gets a sequel. He starts off as a humble but average man from south India who becomes a slave laborer, but in time rises to power. I wouldn’t call Rajeev’s tale the best in the book, but it does get the most page time, and thus the most progression. The second story, “A Heavenly Note,” is somewhat unique. While Rajeev rises to power in the first tale, the second one is about maintaining that power. That’s not always something you see in stories about the rise of tyrants. Obtaining power is one thing. Keeping it is another.

Twisted Dark would still work as a series featuring self-contained short stories. What we get is fairly simplistic, at least at this point. But the book manages to make good on it’s name. Plus, the idea that all these stories will somehow bleed into one another adds another level of intrigue. If you like your horror a little less gory, and more psychological, Twisted Dark is up your ally.

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An All-Star Batman: My Own Worst Enemy Review – Road Trip!

TITLE: All-Star Batman, Vol. 1: My Own Worst Enemy
AUTHOR: Scott Snyder
PENCILLERS: John Romita Jr, Declan Shalvey
COLLECTS: All-Star Batman #15
FORMAT: Hardcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $24.99
RELEASED: April 19, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Let’s get the usual Scott Snyder spiel out of the way early. I like Snyder’s Batman stuff. He’s one of the best writers to pen the Dark Knight’s adventures in the last decade. But he does so many little things that are just infuriating. As such, otherwise brilliant stories become tainted so needlessly. Sadly, All-Star Batman, Vol. 1: My Own Worst Enemy is no  exception.

The dark side of Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face, is gradually taking over his twisted psyche. Harvey enlists Batman’s help to take him across the country and eliminate his dual identity once and for all. But Two-Face counters by blackmailing everyone in Gotham City. If Batman isn’t stopped, he’ll release every dirty secret he has. What’s more, the person that brings Batman down gets a fortune in untraceable cash. Batman, and his new apprentice Duke Thomas, are about to be hit from all sides.

Snyder’s premise is tremendous. The great thing about doing this kind of chase story with Batman is the near limitless amount of enemies you can bring in. In My Own Worst Enemy we see Killer Moth, Firefly, Black Spider, and Gentlemen Ghost. And that’s just the first issue. Of course, we also go higher up on the food chain with baddies like Killer Croc and the Court of Owls.

Snyder, John Romita Jr., and the team are clearly having fun with these action sequences. The opening scene with Batman, Firefly, and Killer Moth in the diner has some blaring flaws (more on those later). But the two-page spread on the left packs a hell of a punch.  The book as a whole has some of the most intense and energetic work Romita has done in quite some time. Certainly since he’s come to DC. We later get a sequence on top of a train, which leads to a gorgeous fight in a river between Batman and Two-Face. I also loved the fight with KGBeast in issue #3, which is so bloody it’s actually reminiscent Romita’s work in Kick-Ass.

As such, it makes sense that All-Star Batman and Kick-Ass had the same colorist: Dean White. As the blood continues to spill, the panels start to take on rusty colors, similar to what we see in the climax of the original Kick-Ass. What’s more, White’s touch makes some of the outdoor sequences really pop. That’s especially the case in issue #2, with the greens, browns, and blues. Though if I may say, Killer Croc might be a bit too bright. He’s Killer Croc, not Kermit the Frog.

What Snyder really nails in this book is the twisted psychology of Two-Face. The emphasis on secrets hammers home the point that everyone has a certain duality and dark side to their personality. A side which, if you believe Two-Face represents who they truly are. Snyder even takes us into the mechanics of Harvey and Two-Face. The two personalities can keep secrets from one another, influence each other’s behavior, etc. You get the sense these are aspects of the Two-Face character that Snyder has wanted to explore for awhile, but hasn’t had the chance. Details like this help to make My Own Worst Enemy one of the more compelling Two-Face stories in recent memory.

That’s why it’s all the more frustrating when Snyder sprinkles in moments that seem tremendously out of character for Batman. The most notable ones occur during fight sequences in the first two issues. In the aforementioned diner scene, Batman says: “Hey. All of you in this diner. Look at me. Not them. Look at my face. No one is dying today.” He then winks at them (shown right). On the next page, he makes a crack about the life cycle of a moth before stabbing Killer Moth through the hand.

Later, during he train sequence in issue #2, Batman says to Killer Croc: “Hey Waylon. Appaloosa called…they want their fool back.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. Batman is a silly character. Silly, and versatile enough to be both dark and brooding, yet somehow funny in the same issue. That being said, lines like this are just bad. And they’re so out of character for the Dark Knight that they leave a bad taste in your mouth for the rest of the story. As good as Snyder is, and as fun as these action sequences are otherwise, this is a Batman story, not a Lethal Weapon movie.

As our story continues, we see that even Batman isn’t immune to Two-Face’s little secrets scheme, as Jim Gordon and the GCPD are about to walk into the Batcave. Snyder somewhat blurs the lines as far as what Gordon does or doesn’t know about Bruce Wayne and Batman. In the middle of issue #5, as the cops are about to break into the cave, Gordon pulls Alfred aside. He tells him to “I don’t know what’s true, you hear me? I never have. … Call him and get him to do whatever he has to do to turn this back. You tell him he has one chance.”

This is somewhat reminiscent of what we got toward the end of “No Man’s Land” almost 20 years ago. Only in that story, we had a little hint of doubt that maybe Gordon did know the truth. In this story, it’s the reverse. We’re literally standing in Wayne Manor as everything is about to be revealed, and we get a hint that maybe Gordon doesn’t know. Frankly, that’s not nearly as effective as what happened in “No Man’s Land.” Here, it’s fairly obvious that Gordon knows. And if he doesn’t, then he’s a complete moron.

Snyder did something similar with the Joker back in “Zero Year.” He and Greg Capullo made it pretty clear that the Red Hood One character was the guy that becomes the Joker. But then he threw in a twist that cast doubt over the whole thing. With both the Joker and Jim Gordon, it’s pretty obvious what Snyder wants to do. But for some reason, he doesn’t fully pull the trigger on it.

This first volume of All-Star Batman also collects “The Cursed Wheel,” which is comprised of back-up stories from the first four issues by Snyder, penciller/inker Declan Shalvey, and colorist Jordie Bellaire. The story is fine for the most part. It centers around Batman training Duke Thomas to be…whatever he’s going to be. There’s an argument to be made that Shalvey’s art is actually superior to Romita’s. It’s crisp, it’s clean, and it’s beautifully complimented by Bellaire.

Snyder sprinkles a little Joker dust on things by showing us Duke’s parents, who’ve been driven insane and in effect “Jokerized” after the events of “Endgame.” In issue #4, Duke poses the theory that the Joker is not pure evil. He simply attacks what he loves, and his serum prompts it’s victims to do the same. The idea isn’t explored much, but it’s a tremendous character insight.

On the flip side, you have the concept of the Cursed Wheel. It’s meant to be a condensed version of all the training Bruce did to become Batman. Each portion/color represents a different part of the human psyche. This could have been really interesting. But they got a little too cute with it. What spoiled it for me was this…

“Look at the colors. You see hints of them in the colors of your allies. Dick leans blue. Damian, green. Barbara, purple. It’s a secret history that unites them, connects them and differentiates them.”

So the colors that Nightwing, Batgirl, Robin, and other characters wear isn’t a simple color choice? Rather, it has some kind of deep-rooted psychological attachment to this wheel? So what about when Nightwing was wearing red? Or when Batgirl’s costume wasn’t purple? Hell, what about the other colors Robin wears? Furthermore, what traits to these different colors represent, exactly? Simply put, I don’t get it. The idea isn’t fleshed out enough, and the color coding is a little too silly for me. Sometimes a blue shirt is just a blue shirt.

The one word I would use to describe My Own Worst Enemy is “consistent.” Like Snyder’s work on Batman, we’ve got some really big and creative ideas here. It’s just that the bad ideas tend to flop as spectacularly as the good ones soar.

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A Champions: Change the World Review – Social Justice League

TITLE: Champions, Vol. 1: Change the World
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Humberto Ramos
COLLECTS: Champions #1-5
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $15.99
RELEASE DATE: May 3, 2017

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

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Champions simultaneously is and is not a product of it’s time. Stories about the new generation rising up and righting the wrongs of the world have been around as long as storytelling itself. And of course, it’s a teenage superhero book. Not exactly a new concept.

At the same time, Mark Waid is going out of his way to be contemporary with Champions. You’ve got some standard teenage superhero stuff, sure. But the book also tackles Islamaphobia, Islamic Fundamentalism, feminism, and police brutality. This is very much a book for 21st century issues, as seen from one side of the political aisle.

In the aftermath of Civil War II, Ms. Marvel (Kamala Kham), Nova (Sam Alexander), and Spider-Man (Miles Morales) have left the Avengers. Determined to give the world heroes they can believe in again, they form a team of their own. A team that refuses to punch down or use unjust force, but instead win the day with wisdom and hope. With the addition of Hulk (Amadeus Cho), Viv Vision, and Cyclops, the Champions are born.

I feel like I owe Humberto Ramos an apology. HIs style is so exaggerated, cartoony even, that one can fall into the trap of underestimating just how good he is. I’ll admit it: That happened to me. But what makes Ramos so special is his versatility. Champions is a potpourri of what superhero comics can offer. It’s a teen dramedy. It’s a superhero action thriller. It’s a look at what it means to be a hero. It’s an inspiring look at what happens when seemingly ordinary people stand up for themselves. But Ramos’ work fits all of it, and ties everything together seamlessly. Visually, nothing feels awkward or out of place. I can only imagine the talent it takes to pull that off.

Mind you, there are some minor bumps in the road. Issue #2 give us a pretty pitiful case of panel duplication. There’s also a splash page where Hulk and Viv are making out that I still don’t get. Hulk is so much bigger than her. I just don’t get how their mouths would…match up? Nothing too intense. But it does briefly pluck you out of the story.

Both Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos have been outspoken regarding the Trump administration, and some of the moves they’ve made. Waid, along with other creators, has made efforts to create “safe spaces” at comic book conventions, and has generally been very public about his feelings toward bullies, hate-mongerers, etc. Ramos, on the other hand, has simply opted not to appear in states that voted for Trump.

Champions, issues #3 and #5 in particular, doesn’t hide that it’s a book written by people with those beliefs. The upside to that is we get some powerful material about standing up to hate, and not being afraid to put yourself at risk to do what’s right. The downside is that this isn’t what a lot of people want in their comics. Though I doubt Waid, Ramos, and the Champions team care who they piss off.

In this sense, the book can overplay it’s hand at times. Especially in issue #3, when we get to the Amal character. She’s a fierce young woman standing up against a militant extremist group committing gender apartheid. It’s pretty obvious how the reader is supposed to feel about her. But Waid makes a point of slipping in little lines about how she should be the leader of the Champions, and how she’s a bad ass. He’s coming from a good place, but that’s overkill.

Gwenpool pops up in issue #5 to join the team’s efforts against a crooked and racist sheriff turning a blind eye to hate crimes. Enraged when a mosque is set ablaze, Gwen and the Champions are tempted to respond with violence. They instead opt to take a more difficult, non-violent route. This has a little bit of a PSA feel to it, but it’s a good message, and an effective use of the Gwenpool character.

Champions has become arguably the most provocative and inviting book Marvel has on the stands right now. It’s not for everyone. But it doesn’t necessarily try to be. It’s also a tremendous example of how the superhero genre can be used for more than just popcorn fun. Change the World has that. But it’s clearly about much more.

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A Batman: I Am Suicide Review – Love and Suicide

TITLE: Batman, Vol. 2: I Am Suicide
AUTHOR: Tom King
PENCILLERS: Mikel Janin, Mitch Gerads
COLLECTS: Batman #915
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $16.99
RELEASED: April 12, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead!***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Tom King is a great writer. Read his work on The Vision and tell me different. I dare you. But is he a great Batman writer? That’s not an easy question. I Am Gotham was a mixed bag, as is a large portion of I Am Suicide. 

Then we get to issues #14 and #15, and King delivers one of the best Batman/Catwoman stories I’ve ever read. But was that a simple flash in the pan? The culmination of a well-crafted story? Something in between?

Claire Clover, a.k.a. Gotham Girl, remains perpetually terrified thanks to the Psycho-Pirate’s ability to control his victims’ emotions. But he’s been taken to the island of Santa Prisca, inside one of the most savage and inescapable prisons on the planet. To infiltrate its walls, Batman and Amanda Waller assemble a makeshift Suicide Squad. Among its members is Catwoman, who stands accused of murdering 237 people. But murder may become a common theme here, as the Psycho-Pirate is under the protection of a man who spent his unthinkable childhood years in that prison, Bane.

At it’s core, this book is about Batman and Catwoman. Bruce and Selina. One of the most intriguing romances in all of popular culture. A fairy tale romance in many ways. But King puts his own spin on it, and looks at it in a way that’s almost psychoanalytic. Letters the two have sent each other serve as the narrative backdrop for issues #10 and #12. We learn that their relationship is largely about the pain they both feel, how it brings them together, and how when they kiss it briefly goes away. I like that. It’s as if it’s an unspoken truth that’s been there the whole time, and we’re just now seeing it. That’s what so many great writers do with these characters.

I’m less a fan of what King does with Bruce’s famous childhood vow to wage war on crime. In issue #12, Bruce reveals that he almost slit his wrists at age 10, before a moment of clarity showed him his true purpose. He then makes the solemn promise that would take him down the road to becoming Batman. Bruce calls his crusade “the choice of a boy. The choice to die. I am Batman. I am suicide.” We read those words as Batman literally fights off an army of gun-wielding prison guards.

I get what King is going for. I understand the unbearable pain of loss leading to a hero’s self-sacrifice. What I’m less enthralled with is the on-the-nose nature of the wrist cutting. The scene doesn’t need that.

Bruce starts that letter talking about the inherent humor in a grown man dressing up like a bat to “punch crime in the face.” It’s very Joker-ish. We even get what may be a vague reference to Mr. J. with the line: “All of them can laugh. Mother. Father. Him. The whole world.” He brings it around to something more serious, of course. But this dialogue speaks nicely to the yin-yang dynamic between Batman and the Joker, whether King mean it that way or not.

King caps the Batman/Catwoman stuff of in an amazing fashion with the “Rooftops” story in issues #14 and #15. I’ve covered those issues in-depth, but it’s worth repeating: “Rooftops” belongs among the greatest Catwoman stories ever told. Mitch Gerads handles the pencils, inks, and colors, bathing the characters in a gorgeous moonlight. What’s more, some of the expressions he gives Selina are just perfect. Throughout the book, King also has the characters call each other “Bat” and “Cat.” That’s a great little touch.

I credit Scott Snyder with doing a lot of justice to the Riddler during his Batman run. He gave the character his balls back. King begins that same process with Bane here, casting him as something of a mad and savage king. A king who, for some odd reason, has to be naked at all times. While things don’t really pick up in this respect until we get to subsequent issues, but this is where we see flashes of early ’90s Knightfall Bane. He’s not just a monster. He’s feared. He’s respected. He’s merciless. He even breaks Batman’s back again and leaves him to drown…

That last one might have been a little more effective if our hero hadn’t simply given himself an extreme chiropractic adjustment and fixed everything. I’ve heard of comic book science, but that right there is comic book medical science. Now if only he’d known that trick in the ’90s.

Also on Batman’s team is Arnold Wesker, a.k.a. the Ventriloquist. They build up his role significantly, and the payoff involves the character being able to subvert the Psycho-Pirate’s powers by virtue of his multiple personality syndrome. Again, comic book medical science. Though I had less issues with that than seeing Wesker make his bare hand talk as if there were an invisible puppet on it (shown below). Comics are so weird.

The majority of the book is drawn and inked by Mikel Janin, and colored by June Chung. I’ve had issues in the past with Janin’s figures looking too static, but we don’t see much of that here. Static or not, Janin’s work is always interesting. His characters look and feel very real, but they have that little touch of superhero dynamism. Case in point, his Batman looks relatively natural and real. But he also gives him a distinct scowl that really walks that line of exaggeration.

Janin and Chung also create a tremendous mood for the prison. It’s suitably dark and dank. You can almost feel that cold, damp air on your skin. Less subtle is the throne of skulls that we see Bane sitting on. We’ve seen this prison before. But it’s never been quite as haunting as it is here.

Despite the greatness of “Rooftops,” I’m not quite ready to call Tom King a great Batman writer just yet. Some of his choices plucked me right out of the story. But he’s becoming a good Batman writer, and that’s better than a lot of people ever get. Perhaps he just needed some time to get comfortable in Gotham City. Either way, this is an improvement. I’ve been excited to pick Batman up again.

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A Review of The Walking Dead, Vol. 27 – Negan Rises, Lucille Falls

TITLE: The Walking Dead, Vol. 27: The Whisperer War
AUTHOR: Robert Kirkman
PENCILLER: Charlie Adlard
COLLECTS: The Walking Dead #157#162
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: Image Comics
PRICE: $14.99
RELEASED:
March 1, 2017

***WARNING: Minor spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The biggest thing I took away from The Whisperer War? That the Saviors were a tough act to follow.

That’s not to say they aren’t interesting in their own way. It’s hard to not be interested in a group that wears zombie flesh and rejects the idea of civilization. But the Whisperers are to The Walking Dead what Bane was to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. On his own merits, Bane was pretty damn evil in The Dark Knight Rises. But the Joker left such an impression on you in The Dark Knight that anyone else paled in comparison. Like the Joker, Negan made a very violent, vile, and personal impact on our heroes. But he was also uniquely charming. That’s why in many ways he’s become the star of the book.

More than two years after their war with the Saviors, Rick Grimes and our network of survivors are once again prepared to fight. But this time the enemy is very different, and the heroes have far more resources. But the Whisperers have something at their disposal  that could destroy everything Rick and the survivors have built: An army of the dead.

The most interesting aspect of this series since the time jump in issue #127 has been Negan’s quest for redemption. But we aren’t exactly sure if that’s his true motivation, or if he’s playing some kind of long game. Either way, we’ve gotten to see him from a few different perspectives. First as a prisoner, then an unlikely confidant for Rick, now a sort of comrade-in-arms.

Negan’s famous baseball bat, Lucille, is unexpectedly shattered in this book. It’s actually sad, in a silly sort of way. More endearing is the burial and eulogy he gives it in issue #162. As many of us know, it’s not really about a damn baseball bat. But seeing his personification of it come full circle is a neat little window into his heart.

On the subject of matters of the heart, Maggie has a great character moment. One of the newer characters, Dante, has been crushing on her for quite awhile. In this book he puts his cards on the table, but Maggie says she’ll only ever love Glenn. When he presses her on being alone for the rest of her life, she simply says: “I’m happy when I think of him. I’m not asking you to understand. I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense to you.” I love that. It’s unconventional, and it’s a great moment for fans who miss that relationship.

Artistically, the strongest issue is #162. Penciller Charlie Adlard, inker Stefano Gaudiano, and gray tone artist Cliff Rathburn give us a gorgeous two-page spread of the largest herd of walkers we’ve ever seen (shown right). But I also love the faint smile Adlard draws on Negan when he apologizes to Lucille for naming “a stupid f***ing baseball bat after you.” He also gives Rick a tremendous terrified look when he realizes the big hoard is coming.

The fire sequence in Issue #161 is also particularly strong. After an attack by the Whisperers, the Hilltop is burning. We see Carl nearly die after rushing back into a burning building. And for pure badassery, it’s tough to top Lydia kicking a zombie as the flames roar behind them.

The Walking Dead also shifts to a 16-panel grid for this volume (shown right), giving the book a much more dense feel at times. If you’re not used to seeing this layout, it can take some time to get used to. I once heard Gene Ha say it’s best to read a comic book twice, once for the story, and a second time just to absorb the art. That’s certainly the case here. I can’t imagine how much extra work this creates for Adlard, Gaudiano, and Rathburn. The books don’t suffer for the change, though. That’a a testament to the talent at work here.

I don’t know whether Negan is playing the long game. Be we know one person who is: Robert Kirkman. The Whisperer War is clearly a smaller piece of a larger puzzle he and this crew have been assembling since issue #127. Thus far it’s not quite as thrilling as what’s come before. But you can’t always judge an image until you can see the whole thing.

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A Batman: Night of the Monster Men Review – Hollow Monsters

Batman #7, 2016, cover, Yanick PaquetteTITLE: “Batman: Night of the Monster Men”
AUTHORS: Steve Orlando, Tom King, Tim Seeley, James Tynion IV
PENCILLERS: Riley Rossmo, Roge Antonio, Andy MacDonald
COLLECTS: Batman #79Nightwing #78Detective Comics #941942
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
CUMULATIVE PRICE: $17.94
GRAPHIC NOVEL RELEASE: March 2017

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

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

This “Night of the Monster Men” crossover boasts an extremely talented group of writers and artists, stars Batman and some of his more popular allies, and is even inspired by one of the very first Batman stories. It also began a week after DC “killed” Tim Drake. So there was a lot of potential here for a creative, emotional, thrill ride.

Yeah, none of that happened. “Night of the Monster Men” feels like your wife dragging you to one of your friend’s weddings. It’s an obligation you’re stuck with, so you try to make the best of it. But in the end you’re just happy to get the hell out of there.

Running through BatmanNightwing, and Detective Comics, this story sees Hugo Strange create giant monsters that attack the city. Much of Batman’s surrogate family gets wrapped up in the chaos. But despite all the innocent lives that hang in the balance, Strange’s entire plot is about Batman himself.

Batman #1, Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters, 1940, Bob Kane and Bill FingerAll this Hugo Strange/Monster Men stuff is inspired by a story from 1940’s Batman #1 entitled “Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters.” It’s a respectable early outing for the Dark Knight by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in which Strange creates a bunch of big ogres to terrorize the city. Matt Wagner took the same cue for his 2006 miniseries Batman and the Monster Men, which was exponentially better.

“Night of the Monster Men” suffers from a variety of problems. But chief among them is a lack of emotional stakes. That’s an odd problem to have, considering what just happened with Tim, and how many of Batman’s surrogate family members are in this fight. In the first issue, Batman repeatedly emphasizes that no one else is dying. This gives the impression that we’re going to get an overprotective Batman, frantically trying to micromanage the efforts of his partners to keep them from dying. This would be futile, of course. But it would have made a great emotional backdrop. We also had the perfect cast for such a story, with Bruce having recently trusted Batwoman to train this new crop of young heroes. And of course, we’ve got his original partner, Dick Grayson. Hugo Strange’s motive also would have been more poignant.

Instead, we mostly get a story about Batman fighting monsters. Monsters created from cadavers, no less. We can’t even go the route of, “Don’t kill the monsters! They’re people!” Later, two of our heroes are turned into monsters, but they don’t mine this for much emotion either.

Granted, they’re cool looking monsters. “Night of the Monster Men” enlists Riley Rossmo and Andy MacDonald, both of whom excel in the fantasy/horror side of things. We also have they very capable Roge Antonio, who give us a nice blend of horror and naturalism. Instead of going the ogre route, the story mostly opts for a mix of mutant aberrations and giant kaiju type monsters. They’re fun to look at, but they’d be more fun if they were more than mere physical threats to our heroes Batman. There’s little of any depth or substance to them, and what the final issue attempts to pass as such via Strange’s motivation doesn’t connect in a meaningful way. (That monster represented fear? But weren’t we supposed to be afraid of all of them?)

Detective Comics #942, monster two-page spread, 2016So instead of a coherent crossover that ties into and takes advantage of Batman’s fragile emotional state, what we essentially get is a bunch of fluff that they attempt to tie together at the end with some psych mumbo jumbo. It’s all so hollow.

“Night of the Monster Men” also suffers from being a little too long, and a little too crowded. The story struggles to give Spoiler and Orphan something to do in all of this. Like Booster Gold in his Justice League Unlimited episode, they’re mostly relegated to crowd control. There’s a cave sequence (not that cave) involving Spoiler, Orphan, and Harvey Bullock that largely feels like padding. If they’d cut that out, along with the ridiculous scene where our heroes use giant guns and harpoons on top of buildings (conveniently adored with the heroes’ insignias) to stop a monster, they’d probably have been able to trim this down from six issues to four. Five at most.

Nightwing #8 and Detective Comics #942 also make full use of the “Hugo Strange dressed as Batman” trope, as we learn that Strange himself wants to be Batman. A fine motive, though not necessary in this case. “Night of the Monster Men” would have worked fine as Strange’s attempt to spotlight Batman’s inadequacies and force him to hang up the cowl, in the process pouring salt in the wound left by Tim’s departure. Perhaps the urge to use the only piece of classic Batman/Hugo Strange imagery was too intense. Admittedly, at that point I was just happy we were finally getting a scene between two human beings, as opposed to hollow monster battles.

batman-clayface-suit-detective-comicsOn the upside, this story makes fine use of Clayface’s new status as one of Batman’s allies. He plays a practical role at first, spreading himself out to guide people out of the city. He also plays an integral role in the finale. But his highlight here, and one of the highlights in “Monster Men” as a whole, comes in Batman #8. As the Dark Knight is about to face one of the monsters head on, Clayface envelops him, effectively becoming a suit of armor. Does technically this fall under the banner of giant awful Batman robots/armor? Absolutely. But the execution is unique enough that it gets a pass from me.

“Batman and the Monster Men” offers good showings from the artists attached, and a bright spot here or there. But by and large, this was a turn off and a waste. Nightwing and Detective Comics were both on a solid course up to this point, and things were starting to look up for Batman. Hopefully we can get back to our regularly scheduled programming in short order.

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A Rust: The Boy Soldier Review – Mega-Prologue!

Rust: The Boy Soldier, Royden LeppTITLE: Rust: The Boy Soldier
AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Royden Lepp
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: Archaia
PRICE: $10.99
RELEASE DATE: March 23, 2016

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

It took me a bit to figure out what exactly Rust: The Boy Soldier was. Obviously, it’s a prequel. But the synopsis indicates it’s a series of prologues compiled to make one…mega-prologue?

Eventually I had to find a video where the author flat out explains it. (Keep in mind it had been awhile since I’d read the previous volumes of Rust.) Each of the three Rust books has a prologue scene. This book collects them all, plus an unreleased prologue from the upcoming final volume. Together they form one story that takes the reader right into the first story, Rust: Visitor in the Field.

Hey, I’m an A.D.D. kid. Sometimes this stuff gets confusing.

Either way, Rust is quality. The Boy Soldier is set during a world war in which robots have been assembled to replace human soldiers. Our hero Jet Jones appears to be a boy wearing a rocket pack. But Jet is not what he seems. His origins have are beyond his wildest imagination, and he has responsibilities he doesn’t know if he can bear. The events of this book will set the entire Rust series into motion.

Rust: The Boy SoldierEven if the majority of The Boy Soldier isn’t new content, it’s worth looking at for a new perspective on Jet Jones. In Visitor in the Field, his origins are intentionally shrouded in mystery. In this book, many of the answers we wanted back then are on full display. We see Jet in the war, we see him talking to his creator, and we see him make the choice that result in him ending up on the Taylor farm. When you put all these stories together, it’s like a curtain has finally been lifted, and we can see a crucial part of who Jet Jones really is.

What’s interesting about The Boy Soldier is that it relies very little on dialogue. It will go several pages without a single word balloon or caption box. This choice emphasizes Lepp’s knack for things like cinematography, body language, and acting. For instance, there’s a scene where Jet, with full knowledge of who and what he is, is trying to pry something off of his person. There’s a lot going on within the span of just a few pages. In Jet we can read disgust, rage, desperation, and then finally pain and almost resignation. All this without a single line of dialogue. It’s a powerful scene, and Lepp’s best performance in the book.

Rust: The Boy Soldier, image 2The book also includes a brief interview with Lepp, in which he briefly talks about his use of sepia tone throughout the series. Lepp says the sepia tone gives the series a feeling of “old times,” synonymous with old photos, etc. Lepp also says the colors can be associated with rusty metal, summer heat, heat from the jet pack, etc. Frankly, I think it does much more for the latter than the former. I always assumed Rust took place in a highly polluted atmosphere, what with the production of robots and all. Either way, the sepia tone contributes to to the feel of the series in a way that can’t be underestimated.

Rust is a bigger and better achievement than people give it credit for. It’s about things like war, loss, and self-discovery. But it’s also a quirky, original story for all ages. Consider just how bereft mainstream American culture (not to mention American comics) is of fresh, new ideas nowadays. Now look at Rust and tell me what’s not to love. One might find some small faults, I suppose. But in the grand scheme of things, projects like Rust are what’s good about American comics in the 21st Century.

Images from author’s collection.

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