A Batman, Vol. 8: Cold Days Review – Bruce Wayne Against Batman?

TITLE: Batman, Vol. 8: Cold Days
AUTHOR: Tom King
ARTISTS:
Lee Weeks, Matt Wagner, Tony Daniel, Mark Buckingham, Andrew Pepoy, Danny Miki (Inker)
COLORISTS: Elizabeth Breitweiser, Tomeu Morey
LETTERER:
Clayton Cowles
COLLECTS:
Batman #5157
PUBLISHER:
DC Comics
PRICE:
$16.99
RELEASED:
December 19, 2018

By Rob Siebert
Fanboy Wonder

A while back, I did a “Panels of Awesomeness” on a couple of the pages in Cold Days. It’s the scene in Batman #51 when Bruce Wayne snaps and rips a urinal out of the wall (shown below). People may criticize Tom King’s writing on this series, but I believe he has the distinction of being the only writer to have Batman do that.

But you can’t blame the guy, can you? I mean, if your wedding had gone that way

1. One Angry Man
As if things weren’t already crappy for him, Bruce Wayne gets jury duty in the titular three-issue story that kicks off Cold Days. Mr. Freeze stands trial for the murder of three women. On paper, it’s an open-and-shut case. Not only did Freeze confess to the murders, but Batman examined the forensic evidence, discovering a detail the police missed. One juror, however, believes Freeze is innocent: Bruce Wayne. Why? Because as Batman, he beat Freeze to a pulp, unintentionally forcing a confession.

This Batman series may have a tendency to go off the rails. But credit where credit is due: I love this story. In fact, it’s the high point of Tom King’s entire run. It cuts right to the core of who Bruce Wayne is, as he’s forced to do something he’s not accustomed to: Confronting a mistake, and making good on it. “Cold Days” even examines the notion that Batman is infallible, at least in the eyes of the public. But as we see all too clearly, he’s not infallible. He’s just a man. A man in a tremendous amount of pain.

The last time we saw Lee Weeks on this book was in Batman Annual #2, illustrating a story set early in Batman’s career. What he turns in here, alongside Elizabeth Breitweiser and Clayton Cowles, is every bit as good, if not better. One of the qualities that makes Weeks’ work so special is that he feels very much at home on a more “grounded” story like this one, without any super-powered exploits. And yet, he can also thrive working on a character like Superman.

King uses “Cold Days” to touch on a subject we rarely touch on with the Dark Knight: religion. He talks about how his father was Christian, and wanted Bruce to find spirituality as well. As one might imagine, that didn’t happen. What we learn is that Batman more or less became Bruce’s religion. And in the eyes of many, Batman has become the equivalent of a deity. It’s a really cool sequence, and I credit King for having the guts to go there.

We also get a fantastic page in issue #51. While Bruce is serving on the jury, Dick Grayson is filling in as Batman. Early on, we get a page on the roof of police headquarters where he’s talking to Commissioner Gordon. The following dialogue ensues…

Gordon: “You’re not him. You’re that other him.”
Batman: “What’s the problem, Commissioner? How can I help?”
Gordon: “Is he alright?”
Batman: *pauses* “No.”

I love that Gordon isn’t written as an idiot, and how this harkens back to pieces of the Knightfall and No Man’s Land stories from the ’90s. Frankly, I wouldn’t have a problem if he called him out as Nightwing.

2. The Dynamic Duo
In the last 20 years or so, writers have made Bruce and Dick a little too friendly for my taste. Until recently, there were times when Dick was acting more like Robin than Damian, the actual Robin. I always liked the idea that when Dick struck out on his own, he developed his own methods and philosophies that at times put him at odds with Batman. He wouldn’t be the estranged son. That role should be saved that role for Jason Todd. I’d simply have Dick be his own man. But when the chips were down, he’d be there if Bruce truly needed him.

That’s precisely the scenario we have in Batman #54. As Bruce tries to power his way through his grief over Selina, Dick simply hangs out. A constant source of levity. And indeed, there’s a fantastic moment where Batman actually does break, and Dick is there for him. This is all intercut with various moments from Dick’s early days at Wayne Manor. It’s one of King’s better written Batman issues.

Our guest artist for issue #54 is none other than the amazing Matt Wagner. I hadn’t realized just how much I missed him working on Batman. What’s so special about Wagner is that he can capture whatever tone you want, with whatever character you want, while still injecting a sense of fun into his art. It’s never not fun to look at a Matt Wagner book.

3. The Beast Unleashed
As much as I disliked Scott Snyder’s Zero Year story, I loved the way it revitalized the Riddler. King, to his credit, continued that revitalization during his run. But one can also argue he did a little revitalizing himself. With, of all characters, KGBeast.

KGBeast, real name Anatoli Knyazev, first appeared in the late ’80s as yet another to stake claim to the DCU’s “world’s deadliest assassin” title. (Think Deathstroke, Deadshot, Lady Shiva, etc.) His most prominent character moment came when he cut off his own arm to allude capture by Batman. But since then, he’s been mostly relegated to what I’ll call the villains ensemble, i.e. somebody to put in a scene where Batman has to fight a bunch of bad guys. Heck, Snyder did it recently in All-Star Batman.

But in Batman #55, the Beast does the unthinkable. As Batman and Nightwing are continuing their father/son bonding of sorts, he uses a sniper rifle to put a bullet in Nightwing’s head. With Dick alive, yet devastatingly wounded, Batman does the only thing he can do: go Beast hunting.

In re-reading this “Beast of Burden” story in trade format, I picked up on something I missed in the single issues: the father/son theme. After carrying out the hit on Nightwing, Knyazev tracks down his father to a remote cabin in “far east” Russia. It may as well be the planet Hoth, as it’s seemingly just miles upon miles of snow, some trees, and that one cabin. We learn that like his son, Vasily Knyazev was once a killer for the KGB, and trained Anatoli to be the same. Seeing the two interact after what has clearly been a long time apart, it’s obvious Vasily was a callous and heartless excuse for a father. And yet, he loves his son in his own unique way…

But Bruce can be cold and callous too. He’s about as dark and withdrawn in these pages as he’s ever been. But he’s not heartless. He showed a great deal of compassion for Dick, and cared for him in the best way he knew how. I suspect that’s why we got the flashback scenes in the Matt Wagner issue. To illustrate the differences between these father/son duos. That makes for a really cool story.

Thankfully, unlike Deathstroke vs. Deadshot in The War of Jokes and Riddles, in this book we actually see the damn fight between Batman and KGBeast blow by blow. It’s easy to follow and project yourself into. It ends with Batman pulling off a maneuver I’m not sure we’ve seen from him before. It’s shockingly merciless, as is the book’s ending.

Tony Daniel and Tomeu Morey set the mood perfectly. I’m reluctant to use The Empire Strikes Back as an example again, but the art evokes the same sort of grim, foreboding mood we see in the opening moments of the film. I could almost hear the John Williams score…

Intercut amongst the fight sequences is a folktale Vasily would read to the future KGBeast when he was a boy. Mark Buckingham and Andrew Pepoy tag in for pages that are fittingly drawn like a storybook for a young child. Though it’s certainly more violent and bloody than any book you’ll pick up off shelves today. Or for that matter, any era. There’s a thematic connection of course, and it’s certainly unique to see these cartoony animals drawn alongside this brutal fight.

The only major negative I can find in “Beasts of Burden,” is that it serves as the inciting incident for the “Ric Grayson” stuff that began in Nightwing #50. I haven’t purchased a Nightwing comic since, as that story just doesn’t interest me. But that’s got nothing to do with Tom King or this series, so I can’t hold it against this book.

4. Bright Spot for the Dark Knight
Cold Days is indeed the high point of Tom King’s Batman run. A bright spot in an often bizarre series of issues. The “Cold Days” story is outstanding on its own. But the issues with Nightwing and KGBeast were much better than I remembered. The art is consistently gorgeous. Lee Weeks stole the show for yours truly. Though I’ve certainly got a soft spot for Matt Wagner.

I take no joy in saying much of Tom King’s Batman run is skippable. I do, however, take joy in telling you Cold Days is a must-read for fans of both Batman and Nightwing. Outstanding character work mixed with great action. In the end, you really can’t ask for much more.

For more of Tom King’s run on Batman, check out I Am Gotham, I Am Suicide, I Am Bane, Batman/The Flash: The Button, The War of Jokes and Riddles, The Rules of Engagement, Bride or Burglar?, and The Wedding.

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter, or email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com.

A Batman: The Wedding Review – Who Invited the Damn Joker?!?

TITLE: Batman, Vol. 8: The Wedding
AUTHOR: Tom King
PENCILLERS: Tony Daniel, Clay Mann, Mikel Janin
INKERS: John Livesay, Sandu Florea, Danny Miki
COLORISTS:
Tomeu Morey, June Chung
LETTERERS: Clayton Cowles
COLLECTS: Batman #4550, portion of DC Nation #0.
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE:
$16.99
RELEASED:
October 24, 2019

By Rob Siebert
Fanboy Wonder

Welp, this was a big one. A pivotal moment in Batman’s world. Or was it? I mean, it certainly could have been…

Either way, this book pissed a lot of people off. And not just with the pay-off (or lack there of) to a year’s worth of build-up. Tom King and the Batman crew had been cranking up the weirdness factor with the last several issues. And not necessarily weird in a good way. It was more weird in a, “Huh?” way. There’s a strong argument to be made that the weirdness reaches its apex here, in a three-issue story called “The Gift”…

1. What’s your refund policy?

Linkara actually did a masterful job of roasting “The Gift” in a recent episode of Atop the Fourth Wall. I highly recommend it. But I’ll touch on the broad strokes here.

In an ill-conceived attempt to give Batman a wedding gift, Booster Gold and Skeets travel back in time to stop the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. The idea was to give Bruce an It’s A Wonderful Life moment, i.e. a chance to see what the world would be like without Batman. And indeed, the world is worse off for him being gone. Much worse. The nation of “Eurasia” is ruled by Ra’s al Ghul. The Penguin has become president of the United States. Selina Kyle is a serial killer who only speaks in meows. Gotham is infected by a “Joker” insanity plague. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson is a homicidal Batman, whose costume is covered by a litany of firearms and explosives. When Booster finds himself trapped in this horrific reality he’s created, he has no choice but to try and…well, take back his gift.

Perhaps the most prominent theme, of Tom King’s Batman run has been the question of whether or not Bruce can actually be happy. It’s a hell of an idea to explore. I get the sense that’s what “The Gift” is trying to do. Would Bruce be happier if his parents hadn’t been killed? And considering how the world looks without Batman, is everyone better off with him being unhappy, yet serving a greater good?

However, in terms of plot holes, “The Gift” looks like friggin’ swiss cheese.

Let’s start with Booster Gold. Setting aside that King portrays him as a complete doofus, his plan makes no sense. By the classic Back to the Future, Part II logic, if you travel back in time and change something critical, reality will change around you. The world you return to may be drastically different than the one you left behind. So Booster goes back in time to stop the Wayne murders, thus preventing Bruce from becoming Batman. Once he does that, how does he expect to return to the present day and show Batman what he’s done? Batman doesn’t exist! That was the idea behind this whole cockamamie scheme in the first place!

What’s more, with this story King, like so many other writers, falls victim to Batman worship. Would the world be different without Batman? Or at least the Batman we know? Yes, of course. But does the entire world fall into chaos without Batman? Remember, we’re still in the DC Universe. The Wayne murders had nothing to do with the origins of, for instance, Superman or Wonder Woman. Hell, we even see Green Lantern in this story! (Albeit in a gratuitously violent manner.) You’re telling me no other heroes could have stopped Ra’s al Ghul from conquering half the planet?

Dick Grayson becoming Batman, much less a Batman who’s more like the Punisher, makes no sense either. How does Dick get the whole bat motif if he’s not taken in by Bruce? Did a rogue bat somehow fly into Haley’s Circus and snap those trapeze wires?

In addition to serving as an extremely bizarre look into an alt-universe Gotham City, “The Gift” essentially serves two purposes. First, like “Everyone Loves Ivy” in the last collection, it helps set the stage for Heroes in Crisis, in which Booster has a major role. Secondly, it gave them a reason to have Tony Daniel draw Catwoman in her Batman Returns costume. But Christ on a cracker, if they wanted to work that in, there had to be a better way than this. Just say it’s a failed prototype costume Selina made. You don’t have to alter the damn timeline…

2. Who Invited the Damn Joker?!?

Well, it was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? You can’t do a big story like this and not have the Joker around in some form.

Mikel Janin is back for the two-issue story, “The Best Man.” But before that, we get a little gem from DC Nation #0 drawn by Clay Mann. The Joker breaks into a random house, and holds a man hostage while he waits for the mail to come, inexplicably expecting an invitation to Batman’s wedding. By and large, I’m not necessarily in love with Clay Mann’s take on the Joker. But there are two shots he absolutely nails. The first is the opening splash page. The second is the panel at left.

Tom King actually writes a decent Joker. He’s good at working humor into the horror, one of the hallmarks of a great Joker writer. The Clay Mann story, “Your Big Day,” and the first several pages of Batman #48 are really good. But as the proceedings continue, he runs into a familiar problem: Joker, and later Catwoman, talk too much in attempts at banter. This is especially true in issue #49, which consists almost entirely of them talking about “the old days,” and Joker’s worry that a happily married Batman wouldn’t be funny, and might ultimately cease to exist.

The big problem I have with issue #49 isn’t so much about the banter attempts. It’s that the Joker, for lack of a better term, talks straight with Selina. He drops the act. He talks like a normal person, as if to an old friend. That’s the idea, I suppose. But I believe that on the rare occasions the Joker does that, it has to be brief yet impactful. It has to mean something.

Consider it this way: Tom King and Mikel Janin clearly have a fondness for The Killing Joke, the classic story by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. At one point Joker even refers to the church they’re in as the “Moore Cathedral” on “Bolland Ave.” For those of you who’ve read it, think about that final scene where Batman extends that olive branch to the Joker, and the Joker simply and quietly responds. For just a few precious moments, he’s not a monster anymore. Then he goes into a joke, and brings himself back into character.

Now…what if he’d been like that for a huge chunk of the story? Or the entire story? Not in the flashback scenes, mind you. The ones in the present day. Takes a lotta the punch out of the story, doesn’t it?

3. The Moment of Truth

Artistically, Batman #50, the wedding issue, is a beautiful tribute to the dynamic these two characters have shared for nearly eight decades. There are splash pages, pin-ups essentially, by the likes of Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Tim Sale, Jim Lee, among numerous others. You can argue work like that is worth the $16.99 on its own. Meanwhile, we’ve got Janin back for the story proper.

While I think this Batman run has soured a lot of people’s perceptions of Tom King following his stellar run on Vision, he’s on his A-game for this issue. As he damn well should be. There’s an absolutely beautiful one-page scene between Bruce and Alfred. Depending on how invested you are in them and their surrogate father/son dynamic, it may even move you to tears.

The ending of this issue, i.e. the outcome of the wedding, had a lot of people crying foul. I’m not going to get into spoilers, but it’s been over a year since the issue was published. So I feel comfortable enough saying fans thought DC didn’t deliver on what they’d promised.

But let’s be honest: These are mainstream superhero comics, where marriages either get retconned out of existence, or are mystically evaporated via deals with Mephisto. At best, there was only a 50/50 chance they were going through with the wedding anyway. Plus, it’s not like they had the Joker, or God forbid Kite-Man, come in and break up the ceremony. They tied it into what had already been established in the 49 issues prior, and the big theme of Bruce and happiness. Was the final outcome predictable? Absolutely. Even a little bit of an eye-roller. But it works. Especially with the benefit of hindsight.

When discussing a potential marriage between Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer, DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio once famously said in 2013…

“Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives. … They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand with our characters.”

To an extent, DC would scale back on that philosophy as time went on. For instance, they re-established the Superman/Lois Lane marriage. But I think a lot of fans who were in the know about DiDio’s remarks saw the outcome to Batman #50 as a step backward.

I think that’s an understandable sentiment, but perhaps a bit premature. As of this writing, Tom King has one issue of Batman left, which happens to be an extra-sized 48-pager. Then he’s got a 12-issue Batman/Catwoman maxi-series coming in 2020. So he’s clearly not done with Bruce and Selina yet. I’m not saying I expect anything in particular to happen. I’m just keeping an open mind as we move ahead.

4. I Now Pronounce You…

Batman: The Wedding is a red letter moment in the history of two iconic characters. For that alone, it’s worth a read. And for all the blunders King has made during his Batman run, he got the wedding itself right. Mikel Janin’s art continues to amaze, standing tall on its own even with additions from iconic Batman artists. And hey, if train wrecks are your thing, you’ll definitely want to check out “The Gift.”

For more of Tom King’s run on Batman, check out I Am Gotham, I Am Suicide, I Am Bane, Batman/The Flash: The Button, The War of Jokes and Riddles, The Rules of Engagement, and Bride or Burglar?.

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter, or email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com.

A Batman: Bride or Burglar? Review – What Might Have Been…

TITLE: Batman, Vol. 6: Bride or Burglar?
AUTHOR:
Tom King
PENCILLERS: Travis Moore, Joelle Jones, Mikel Janin
COLLECTS: Batman #3844
FORMAT:
Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $16.99
RELEASED: July 25, 2018

By Rob Siebert
Fanboy Wonder

This is the part of Tom King’s Batman run where things start to get weird. Like, really, really weird.

Bride or Burglar? is book-ended by two strong single issues. But in between, King starts needlessly messing around with space-time. He also plants some seeds for Heroes in Crisis that, like much of that ill-conceived event comic, are needlessly awkward and forced. There’s one bit that’s downright blasphemous. From a quality standpoint, this is the lowest the series has dipped up to this point.

But let’s start by focusing on the positives, shall we? And to do that, we have to jump to the last story in this collection…

1. History Lesson
The highlight of the trade is easily Batman #44, which features the titular “Bride or Burglar” story. It sees Selina hunting for a wedding dress as only Catwoman can. But interspersed among the story are actual scenes from Batman and Catwoman’s history that King and Janin make their own, with most of the original dialogue intact. We go as far back to the original Batman #1 in 1940, through the ’50s, on into the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, all the way to the present.

While they do take certain creative liberties, they keep Catwoman’s various different costumes intact. As such, we not only get a sense of how her relationship with Batman has evolved, but how her Catwoman persona has evolved over its lifespan. For history buffs like yours truly, it’s an absolute treat. Story-wise, there’s also a wonderful little moment between Selina and Alfred on the final page.

Tom King’s Batman run has gotten a lot of flack, much of which is justified. But I’ll never knock the way he makes Bruce and Selina’s chemistry radiate off the page. Their familiarity, their intimacy with one another on a strictly verbal scale, is enough to make you believe they love each other, and perhaps should be married.

2. Who is Bruce Wayne?
Jumping back to the start of Bride or Burglar, Batman #38 introduces us to one of the most unlikely villains in all of Batman lore. I won’t spoil the specifics of who it is, but the character’s M.O. is that he models himself after Bruce Wayne. He essentially wants to become Bruce Wayne, which naturally puts Batman in a rather awkward spot. It’s been said that many of Batman’s enemies are, at their core, different versions of what Bruce could have become after his parents were killed. This premise takes that idea so literally that it’s actually pretty clever. We also spend some time doing C.S.I. type stuff with Batman and Commissioner Gordon, which is always fun.

Our guest artist for the issue is Travis Moore, joined by colorist Giulia Brusco. I can’t say I fell in love with their work here. But it was serviceable. No harm no foul.

3. The Eternal Vow
Here’s where we start to run into trouble.

In issue #39 we meet the Gentle Man, a warrior from another realm who spends night and day single-handedly fending off an army of monsters called the Hordes of Gehenna. Apparently, some time in the past Batman and Wonder Woman met and fought alongside the Gentle Man. They offered to take up his fight for a day and allow him to rest. But what he neglects to tell them is that minutes on Earth equate to years in this other realm. Thus, Bruce must not only fight alongside Diana for what winds up being about 30 years in relative time, but he must remain faithful to Selina. That’s not necessarily easy when you’re in the trenches with an Amazonian Princess.

While Joelle Jones is very much in her element with the battle scenes, this whole “Eternal Vow” story winds up being stupid and pointless filler on the path to the wedding in Batman #50. Bruce and Selina didn’t need a fairy tale story like this to emphasize the love they have for each other. A huge part of their appeal is that they’re not the fairy tale lovers destined to be together. They’re two orphans who met when their bizarre and violent paths happened to cross, and they fell into a unique kind of love. That’s all you need with them.

Furthermore, I don’t buy that Bruce comes out of that realm the same person. Yes, he’s Batman. But that’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card for crap like this. Both he and Diana would be shells of their former selves. Nearly unrecognizable to anyone who knew them before.

As if that weren’t enough, Tom King has trouble writing Wonder Woman. Her dialogue is acceptable, but very weird. At this point, she’s been an active hero for years, right? But King writes her as if she’s just stepped out of Themyscira. It’s needlessly off-putting. And sadly, Diana isn’t the only Justice Leaguer to get a bad shake here…

4. Crazy Love
In “Everyone Loves Ivy,” Poison Ivy is able to gain control over the minds of everyone on the planet, except for Batman and Catwoman, who are able to fight it off using comic book science. Thus, it’s literally them against the world.

I like parts of this idea. It puts Ivy over huge, as she becomes a Justice-League-level threat, and is ultimately victorious. How she went about gaining the mind control is believable. The way they beat her is a little hokey, but acceptable given the parties involved.

Mikel Janin is back for these issues, and he really knocks it out of the park with all the greenery and foliage this story requires. Rarely has a Poison Ivy lair looked so good. I also give King and Janin credit for showing us what would actually happen if Superman full-on punched Batman in the face. It ain’t pretty, folks.

Sadly, I was yanked out of the story rather abruptly during the first issue. Ivy attempts to use the Flash against Batman. Barry Allen runs at him, or more specifically at Alfred, using his super-speed. Batman knocks him out with a single punch, effectively an inexplicably knocking him out of super-speed. What’s worse, this happens three more times in the following issue. Not just to Barry, but to Wally West and Kid Flash. Apparently Catwoman is also inexplicably capable of defeating the Flash with a single blow…

Bull. Shit.

I normally shy away from profanity. But this one deserved it. Shame on both Tom King and the Batman editorial team. You don’t get to turn the Flash and his supporting cast into a gag because you aren’t creative enough to find a better way to neutralize them. This is especially offensive in hindsight, given what King does to Wally in Heroes in Crisis.

In the end, Heroes in Crisis was the master this story served. It planted the seed (no pun intended) for Ivy’s role there. As such, her motivation involves a specific trauma from The War of Jokes and Riddles that we never saw, and thus can’t connect with as easily. So when the story tries to pivot and make her a victim, it fails because despite that trauma, she still took over the damn world. To an extent, she just made victims out of billions of innocent people. So you’ll pardon me if I’m rather unsympathetic.

5. The Verdict
Bruce proposed to Selina in Batman #24. I’m assuming by that point the knew the wedding was going to be in issue #50. So they had 25 issues to fill before the big pay-off. Some of the storytelling was very organic, i.e. the one with Talia al Ghul from Rules of Engagement. “Bride or Burglar” worked very well. The stuff with Superman and Lois Lane was fun.

But then you’ve got stuff like “Eternal Vow” and “Everyone Loves Ivy,” which are somewhat apropos, but still bizarre choices to fill that gap. It seems like we could have spent at least some of those issues figuring out how Selina adjusts to being in Batman’s inner circle. What sort of changes does it require of her? Are Batman and Catwoman essentially the new Dynamic Duo of Gotham City? What about Thomas and Martha Wayne? What was their wedding like? And how does Bruce think they’d react to his choice for a bride?

This obviously isn’t going to be the status quo forever. So why not mine this wedding stuff for as much character exploration as possible? They could still have told fun and compelling stories along the way. But instead we’re left with a feeling of missed opportunities, and the nagging question of what might have been.

For more of Tom King’s run on Batman, check out I Am Gotham, I Am Suicide, I Am Bane, Batman/The Flash: The Button, The War of Jokes and Riddles, and The Rules of Engagement.

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter, or email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com.

 

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

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An X-Men Gold, Vol. 2 Review – Old Flames Reignited

TITLE: X-Men Gold, Vol. 2: Evil Empires
AUTHOR: Marc Guggenheim
PENCILLER: Ken Lashley, Lan Medina, Luke Ross
COLLECTS: X-Men Gold #712
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $17.99
RELEASED: November 15, 2017

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

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

X-Men Gold is a feel-good book in a lot of ways. It’s got a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feel to it while still having its feet planted in the modern era. That was the case in the first volume, and it continues here in the second.

Evil Empires sees our heroes face a mutant serial killer, Congress, and Russian gangsters backed up by Omega Red. That’s variety for you. All the while, romances old and new start to blossom. Rachel Grey discovers Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler’s feelings for her, as Kitty and Peter slowly move closer to resurrecting their relationship. Plus, what secrets lay in the journey that the alien Kologoth took to Earth? We saw him work with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. But where does he go from here?

Kitty and Peter are the emotional core of Evil Empires as a reunion between the two becomes more and more tempting. It’s so obvious where they’re going that the romantic scenes between the two lose some of their edge. But there’s an obvious feel-good quality to it, considering these two have grown up together. That they joined the team so young and are now in leadership roles makes the book feel like the natural continuation of the X-Men legacy.

Kitty herself is the personification of that idea. In the span of a few issues, we see her delegate tasks for her team during a crisis, go one-on-one with a mutant serial killer in the school, and testify before Congress against an act that would deport all mutants. Not half bad. It also doesn’t hurt that Ken Lashley drew a hell of a fight scene in issue #8, with a sword-wielding Pryde facing our serial killer. Great dim lighting in that scene too, which is a credit to tremendous coloring by Frank Martin and Andrew Crossley.

Our killer is a new version of the X-Cutioner. He’s more or less a S.W.A.T. guy with a LOT of extra toys. But he’s got a fairly sympathetic backstory, and we find out he’s got a pretty good reason to dislike mutants. He’s simply taken it too far. The way Guggenheim writes his confrontation with Kitty is a great snapshot of the world the X-Men live in. The stigma that mutants live with isn’t always the result of blind prejudice. That doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t justify violence. But it’s not always as simple as people being afraid of people that are different.

Full disclosure: I know next to nothing about Rachel’s relationship with Kurt prior to X-Men Gold. But there’s a shy sweetness to it that’s, dare I say, cute. They approach the idea of being together with reasonable caution, but there’s obviously a good amount of chemistry there. Rachel and Kurt hardly have the spotlight in this book, but what we get is enough to make you want more. 

So we’ve got iconic and interesting characters who have a cozy, family-like dynamic with one another. We see them on the baseball field when we open the book, and then later playing cards. Again, it’s kind of cute. The problem is once we get past issue #9, we lose a lot of intrigue. Issues #10 and #11 are about Russian gangsters trying to resurrect Omega Red, using Peter’s sister Illyana (a.k.a. Magik) as a power source. Outside of the novelty of seeing Omega Red and Illyana, for the most part there’s not much to sink your teeth into.

I remember skipping out on issue #12 when I saw it at my local comic shop. The exploration of Kologoth’s backstory and this whole alien world felt like a sharp turn, despite a brief set-up for it early on. It’s all meant to pay off in later issues (#16 and #17 specifically). But for the time being I was struggling to care, and as such the book ends on a whimper.

All that being said, the book is very well illustrated. The art actually holds the book up in the second half as its story deteriorates. Ken Lashley is our cover artist, and does the pencils and inks for issues #7-9. Lashley excels in giving his work a sense of motion, which is why his fight sequences work so well. And not just the one with the X-Cutioner. Whiplash (see Iron Man 2) crashes Kitty’s appearance in front of Congress, which causes a brief but intense fight. He also gives us a pretty cool layout with Nightcrawler in issue #7 (shown left).

We shift to Chris Medina’s more detailed style for issues #10 and #11. While I was hardly enamored with the story about Peter’s uncle, Medina did give him a very distinct face. During his scenes you feel like you’re looking at a real person. The quieter, more intimate moments between Kitty and Peter also mean a bit more with Medina at the pencil. His style offers them a little more heart.

Luke Ross gets tagged in for issue #12. I’ll say this much: He draws a hell of a reptilian alien in Kologoth. Really nice texture on the skin and teeth, plus the ominous red eyes.  So little about the issue is memorable. But Ross’ rendering of the monster itself stands out. Frank Martin goes solo on the colors here, and gets to play with a pretty expansive palette. Especially early on, when we get a look at Kologoth’s home world.

X-Men Gold, Vol. 2 underperforms in its second volume, despite delivering some solid character work and good action early on. But as a reader, it still has my attention. There’s still a lot of value in this back to basics approach, and a great stories than can still be told.

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A Darth Vader, Vol. 1: Imperial Machine Review – Year One, Day One

TITLE: Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith, Vol. 1 – Imperial Machine
AUTHOR: 
Charles Soule
PENCILLER: Giuseppe Camuncoli. Cover by Jim Cheung and Matthew Wilson.
COLLECTS: Darth Vader #16
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $17.99
RELEASED: 
November 22, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Can we talk about the lightsaber for a minute? Because to be honest, I’m getting sick of them. Specifically, their overblown importance.

I’ve talked previously about how I subscribe to what I’ll call the Red Letter Media theory on lightsaber use. Generally, the less we see of them, the more impactful it is when someone finally ignites one. This becomes apparent when watching the prequel trilogy. But in recent years, lightsabers have been getting a strange in-universe reverence. Not just as cool or dangerous weapons, but artifacts with an increasing amount of personal and spiritual symbolism. They’re almost characters unto themselves. I understand this from a marketing standpoint, as a lightsaber is a fanboy’s wet dream. But to me it makes little sense from an in-story perspective.

Mind you, there is a certain precedent for it. Lightsabers act as an instantly recognizable symbol for the Jedi Order. Obi-Wan gives Luke his father’s lightsaber, which later plays a prominent role in The Force Awakens. Luke builds his own lightsaber, which we see in Return of the Jedi. General Grievous collected lightsabers like trophies from fallen Jedi. So let’s not go so far as to say they have no significance at all.

But while I appreciated the use of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens as a link to the past, and a sort of symbol of for the Skywalker family, the notion that the weapon itself “calls to” Rey was a little much for me. What the weapon symbolizes is one thing. Giving it special powers is another.

Rarely will you find a better example of this strange lightsaber reverence than in Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith, Vol. 1 – Imperial Machine. Immediately after the events of Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine sends Vader on a mission to obtain a new lightsaber for himself. “I have very high hopes for what we might achieve together,” the Emperor says. “But first…you will need your lightsaber.” Vader must take a lightsaber from a surviving Jedi and use the dark side to corrupt the kyber crystal inside. Make it “bleed.” Obtaining this new weapon won’t be easy. But it is the first trial the former Anakin Skywalker must now face as a dark lord of the Sith.

So because the kyber crystals are “alive” in their own way, Sith lords use their anger to make them “bleed,” thus the red lightsaber. The idea itself is actually pretty neat. But did it merit an entire story based around it? Did Darth Vader’s lightsaber really need an origin story?  I don’t think so.

This strikes me as the kind of thing they could have explained in a scene before Vader goes off on his first big mission. Or maybe a one-shot where Palpatine gives Vader a kyber crystal, and shows him how to corrupt it. At first Vader has trouble, but he conjures up images of Obi-Wan and Padme and gets the job done. It didn’t need to be the motivation for an entire story arc.

More interesting than Vader’s quest to steal a lightsaber is the surviving Jedi he’s tasked with taking it from. Kirak Infil’a has taken the “Barash Vow.” Under said vow, the individual in question must cut themselves off from Jedi affairs, living only for the Force. It sounds suspiciously like what Luke is doing when Rey finds him on Ahch-To. Kirak also has his hair pulled back in two braids, just as Rey’s is in the Last Jedi footage we’ve seen. Coincidence? Probably. But you never know…

It’s almost always interesting to see Vader’s agony at the loss of Padme, the state of his body, and all that’s come as a result of his actions. It’s a glimpse into the hellish reality his existence has become. We see surprisingly little of that in Imperial Machine, given how soon this is after Revenge of the Sith. It is touched on effectively, however, in issue #5. As Vader is trying to bend the crystal to his will, a scenario plays out in his mind in which he turns on Palpatine and re-unites with Obi-Wan. He’s fantasizing about making things right, and perhaps atoning for his actions. In theory, that’s a path he can take. But of course, he doesn’t. Not yet, at least.

I spent a good amount of time ragging on Salvador Larroca for some of the work he did on the previous Darth Vader book. Namely drawing certain characters based off still shots from the various movies. The upside to this approach, however, is that Larroca draws a picture-perfect Vader. For me, if you can get that mask right then half the battle is won.

Giuseppe Camuncoli gives us a different kind of Darth Vader. It’s hardly picture-perfect. For instance, I’m not a fan of the panel at left. But I nevertheless find Camuncoli’s version more artistically pure. He’s creating of his own mind, and at no point do I feel taken out of this book when I see a familiar image of Vader or Palpatine, pulled from a movie still. That’s a trade I’m willing to make.

Camuncoli, along with inker Cam Smith and colorist David Curiel, waste little time in ripping up Vader’s iconic suit. It’s already in tatters by issue #2. Things only get worse when we get into the fight with Kirak Infil’a. We end up with a partially skeletonized version of Vader’s suit, which he pieces together using droid parts after being incapacitated and effectively broken in combat. In the opening pages of issue #4 we see him using the Force to put all the little pieces into place so he can haul himself to his feet. It’s an awesome visual, and a fun callback to Anakin’s expertise with machines. It’s later followed up on in issue #6, when Vader gets to repair the suit to his liking.

Issue #6 takes us into the next arc, which will feature the Inquisitors we saw in Star Wars: Rebels. We get a confrontation between Vader and the Grand Inquisitor in the Jedi Temple, which is pretty decent. Fittingly, Vader’s next target will be someone Star Wars fans recognize as a face from the Jedi Temple…

I maintain there was no need to end the previous Darth Vader book. We all knew Marvel would come back to the character eventually. There’s no shortage of creators to work on the life and times of the dark lord. While I have a major gripe with a lightsaber being Vader’s motivation in this story, Imperial Machine is still a solid read with mostly good art. Star Wars fans who aren’t as finicky as I am will enjoy it.

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A Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Vol. 4 Review – When Zordon Steals the Show

TITLE: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Vol. 4
AUTHORS: Kyle Higgins, Ryan Ferrier
PENCILLERS: Hendry Prasetya, Bachan, Daniel Bayliss. Cover by Goni Montes.
COLLECTS: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers #13-16
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: BOOM! Studios
PRICE: $16.99
RELEASED: 
October 25, 2017

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

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The first act in the larger story of Lord Drakkon comes to an end in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Vol. 4. Tommy’s evil doppleganger looks great here, and we also get an awesome character spotlight. Overall, this MMPR series still has a big up side. But once we get into issue #16, particularly the last few pages, things start to get rocky.

When we open the book, Tommy and Billy are still trapped in an alternate universe where the Green Ranger remained with Rita Repulsa after the events of “Green With Evil.” This turn of events led to the destruction of the Power Rangers, and Tommy’s rise as the evil Lord Drakkon. Now the Tommy and Billy that we know must join up with a resistance force (led  by familiar faces) to bring Drakkon down. Meanwhile, Jason and the others face Rita and her minions with reduced powers, and without Zordon. And where is Zordon anyway?

We get the answer to that last question in issue #15, and it’s the creative highlight of the book. Zordon has been absent for several issues at this point, so it’s obviously good to check in with him. But this issue goes above and beyond, following him into a rift between the dimensions. We see him meet his counterpart from Drakkon’s world, and how Zordon has continued to play a role in the conflict despite current predicament. More importantly, after witnessing how events have unfolded in this alternate reality, we see him speak from a place of uncertainty. We aren’t always shown that perspective from a wise old sage character like this. It’s an intriguing change up, which in the end cuts to the very heart of who Zordon is.

Daniel Bayliss hits a home run with the pencils, inks, and colors. His renderings of a full-bodied Zordon interacting with the time warp around him, and later his other self, are compelling, gorgeous, and hit the mark emotionally. He also gets to play around with some of the the war sequences we’ve seen in previous issues. We get some familiar images of Rita’s forces in Washington, Drakkon holding the Red Ranger helmet, and a few glorious shots of the Thunderzords. Bayliss can’t come back to the Rangers soon enough.

We closed the previous volume with the reveal of Trini, Bulk, and Aisha (who we know as the future Yellow Ranger) as members of the resistance. Having Aisha show up is a nice bit of fan service. But that’s all it amounts to. I won’t complain about that, considering how much griping I’ve already done about Tommy and Billy seeing things from their future.

For whatever reason, this series is bound and determined to cast the fun-loving Zack as a brooder. We get more of that here. But it’s an alternate version of Zack, who has lost nearly everything and become the leader of the resistance. Given how dark the world around him has grown, I’m alright with this version of Zack being more dour. It even makes for a cool little moment with the canonical Zack toward the end.

This volume also sees Finster create Goldar clones of all builds and sizes to fight against the Rangers. I love this idea. It makes sense. Goldar has failed Rita time and again, so she has Finster “improve” on him. This might have worked as an idea for the show, time and costumes permitting. We even get to see Goldar without his armor on the very first page. I didn’t even know he could take the armor off.

Kyle Higgins deserves a lot of the credit for the more sinister Finster we’ve gotten from the BOOM! books. The crowning example is what we got from Trey Moore and Frazer Irving in the 2017 annual. But the Finster we get in this book has a nice underlying creepiness to him. By comparison, the Finster we got on the show was almost a kind old man at times.

One of the subplots we get in this book involves the Trini of Drakkon’s world coming to grips with seeing Billy, as the Billy of her world died saving her life. If Higgins and Hendry Prasetya are playing at an eventual Billy/Trini romance, they’re doing it in a very subtle manner. The potential romance between Billy and Trini thing is something some of us have been talking about since we were kids. They almost have to address it at some point. Even if it’s just an issue about how they don’t have those kind of feelings for each other. Matters aren’t helped when you consider Prasetya’s strengths are the super-powered action scenes, and not the quiet interpersonal stuff. So one can argue that material isn’t fully maximized.

On the flip side, Prasetya’s fight sequences with a morphed Lord Drakkon are epic in the inevitable good Tommy vs. evil Tommy fight. This is obviously the first time we’ve gotten to see that costume in action. It’s very evocative of classic Power Rangers. The costume is obviously visually similar to the White Ranger suit. Darken is even holding Saba for much of the battle. You can easily hear Jason David Frank’s cheesy “evil” voice when reading some of Drakkon’s dialogue. (“Hello again, Tommy.”)  There’s also a teamwork theme in effect here, which is something that’s remained present for the entire series.

The Yellow Ranger also gets a Battlizer of sorts in issue #16. It comes out of nowhere, but looks cool enough. I also appreciate that it’s Trini who gets it. She was always the most underdeveloped character on the show, and remains that way in the comics. So this is a cool moment for her.

At this point we’ve built this Lord Drakkon story up for four books. Everything has built to this confrontation between the two Tommys, and the Power Rangers finally striking back against Rita’s forces. The ending makes sense. But when I read issue #16 during it’s initial release, I was disappointed. We’d built to those big showdowns for so long, only for them to pass fairly quickly. This felt like it should have been a big, epic finale. The Megazord makes a big comeback against the Goldar clones, and Tommy and Drakkon make some kind of startling discovery about each other that leads into the next phase of the story. Instead the resolution, particularly the bit with the teens back at school, feels very rushed and slapped together. All the right ingredients are there. But we aren’t given enough time with them.

However, I will say that what happens to Drakkon at the very end has the potential to be very interesting…

Our Bulk and Skull back-up stories are no more, now replaced by “The Ongoing Misadventures of Squatt & Baboo.” Like their predecessors, these stories were fairly benign additions to each single issue that are now collected long form. Ryan Ferrier and Bachan set a similar goofy tone. But while the Bulk and Skull stories got old after just a few issues, I somehow find Squatt and Baboo’s adventures a little more palatable. Perhaps it’s because they got a fraction of the screen time Bulk and Skull did, so there’s a refreshing quality to them getting the spotlight here. The collective story is about them visiting an alternate dimension and running into Goldar. It’s mildly amusing, and Bachan has a cool take on our “heroes.”

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Vol. 4 has a few more problems than the previous volumes do. But all the elements that make the series great are still there. Namely, Higgins’ willingness to write an objectively silly concept in a more serious and dramatic voice, Hendry Prasetya’s awesome work on the words and costumes, and the added depth injected into the characters. For Power Rangers fans young and old, this series remains a must-read.

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