Saturday, August 25, 2012

Quarter Bin #42 "Knightcontinues"

Disclaimer: "Quarter Bin" does not always feature comics from an actual quarter bin.  The quarter in the title is for inflation purposes.  This is my two cents worth on older comics.

I don't normally link to the material that helped inspire what I sometimes write about here at Comics Reader, but as it happens, the subject and specific comics came up with another blogger I follow, PT Dilloway, who wrote about the same general topic here.  I originally heard about this story thanks to History of Comics on Film, which wrote about it in this survey.

Okay!  So let's print up the marquee:

AZRAEL #s 37-38 (DC)
from January-February 1998

These issues are part of a greater arc (including the ones before and after) called "Angel and the Bane," which constitute a rematch five years in the making, after the climactic Batman #500, in which Jean-Paul Valley, having succeeded Bruce Wayne as the Dark Knight and donned his armored Batsuit for the first time, defeats the man who broke Wayne's back.  A cool logo, probabl cooler than the ones used during the "Knightfall" saga, is created for these issues and everything!

I should note that Azrael #36 was available, too, but not having an exact outline of the issues I needed, I couldn't be sure, because it was one of those Faces of DC covers that the company released across its line for releases dated December 1997.  It was one of those initiatives that certainly makes a mark,but it also doesn't provide any details about the story inside the actual comic, so double-edged sword there.

Anyway, "Angel and the Bane" is not a major story, except maybe for Azrael, so it's not strictly essential to have read the whole story anyway.  It's very much indicative of what Azrael as a whole did for a hundred issues.  This is not to say that legendary writer Denny O'Neil wasted his time, but that he created a very insulated experience, which is odd, because for a time, Jean-Paul Valley was very much mainstream.  He was, after all, Batman.

Then again, that's usually the fate of fairly random characters trying to replace icons.  Ever try to keep track of the guys not named Steve Rogers who have been Captain America?  Even Ed Brubaker won't be able to keep Bucky Barnes relevant as the Winter Soldier.  Arguably the only replacements who won't be forgotten are Dick Grayson (who has pinch-hitted for Batman twice, but has also well-established himself both as Robin and Nightwing) and the three human Green Lanterns not named Hal Jordan (Guy Gardner, who became an icon as an atypically coarse hero; John Stewart, one of the most enduring black heroes; and Kyle Rayner, who after all had the weight of the whole Oan legacy on his shoulders for a while).  You could also argue Wally West as the second Flash (Jay Garrick belongs to a separate tradition, though he is routinely included in the same franchise), though recent years have seen him completely forgotten in favor of his predecessor and mentor, Barry Allen.

Anyway, what separates Azrael from most heroes and probably helped O'Neil stick him in a distinct corner for so long is that all his skills are completely artificial, programmed into him by a fanatical religious order.  For that reason, he has a lot more in common with Bane than might be appreciated on the surface.  In the comics, Bane is still best known for the steroid Venom, which is green and made him a hulking menace, though he used his brains to overcome Batman.  For many fans and writers, no matter how often Bane is shown to have overcome and come to completely despise Venom, he is inextricably associated with it.  In a way, it's Bane's own programming, something he must continually overcome.

That makes the dynamic between Bane and Azrael more compelling than simply the strange dance Bane took with two men named Batman.  By the time he realized that the Batman who beat him (mostly thanks to clipping the hoses connecting and feeding Venom to him) wasn't the original, Bane probably came to think of Azrael in a whole new light.  Since I haven't read the complete "Angel and the Bane," I don't know how much O'Neil spent philosophizing on this, but to Bane, the concept of Azrael must have been irresistibly compelling, in much the way Batman was when he was first trying to make his name (successfully, at least to start).  Here's a man who like I've said was also induced by artificial means to become something more than what he was.

(Here I should note that while growing up in the prison pit from the comics and Dark Knight Rises, Bane is not the weakling suggested in Batman and Robin before being injected with Venom for the first time.  That may go over well with Captain America, but Bane only survives, and is in fact selected for the procedure, because he's already amply physically capable.  The actual weaklings died because their bodies couldn't handle it.)

In "Angle and the Bane," he uses a modified version of Venom as a tool of control, a marketable asset, to try and restart his empire.  He targets Azrael as a test subject, curious to see what will happen when this curious individual is pumped full with it, and whether withdrawal will kill him.  I didn't read the final issue, as I said, nor the apparent subsequent "No Man's Land" tie-in followups, but suffice to say, the hero in the title of the series prevails, which can be assumed thanks to the fact that there are sixty issues yet to go.

This is not, then, a story about a rematch.  That's not what Bane wants or needs, and not what Azrael wants or needs, either.  Azrael, in fact, seems to be an incredibly reluctant hero throughout this series, who is at the margins of Batman's world, though seven issues after this arc, the series is newly subtitled Agent of the Bat; this seems to have no noticeable impact.

In comics characters can be created and discarded with equal ease.  I'm no stranger to finding some creations more fascinating than their publishing history suggests.  On the whole, Bane has been able to weather his "Knightfall" legacy better than Azrael, who has become a footnote (even replaced with a totally new character, Michael Lane, for a time, though using the same name and backstory), even if he must continually fight the perception that he's only worthwhile if hopped up on Venom, or at least somehow thinking about it.

In Dark Knight Rises, Venom is entirely removed from the equation, but then Bane is also reduced, in the end, to being a henchman to a higher power (a relationship to Ra's al Ghul derived from the comics).  Mr. Dilloway and me have debated what exactly that means to his overall role in the movie, whether it truly diminishes his other accomplishments in bringing Gotham to its knees.  I don't mean to say that Bane didn't, in fact, do that, but for me, he's a character who's most fascinating when he uses his mind.  He has turned his body into a weapon, to be sure, with or without the use of Venom, but his original defeat of Batman had nothing to do with his body (except for the whole back thing) and everything to do with his mind.  That's something that was quickly forgotten, even by the time Jean-Paul Valley beat him, and something every writer, even those with the best intentions, have never really gotten back to since.

"Angel and the Bane" is a sincere attempt by O'Neil to reclaim that territory.  Personally, I would have very much appreciated in this strange relationship had lasted a little longer, if Bane hadn't simply slipped away and Azrael continued doing whatever it was he did for another sixty issues.  Azrael begged for concrete context, just as much as Bane did.  Bane could never be a Lex Luthor.  The sad part is, two years after "Knightfall," DC turned another bruiser into a calculating menace, Blockbuster, who went on to trouble Nightwing...for a hundred issues.  Imagine if Bane had ever been used with that level of commitment.

Maybe the stuttering attempts to use Bane since "Knightfall" helped make Dark Knight Rises possible.  Maybe a poor publishing history also paradoxically helped keep the Azrael property viable.  Jean-Paul Valley maybe doesn't have the same staying power as the suit he wears.  In the later incarnation, the suits literally gobbles up its wearers, uses them up and spits them out.  For Valley, that ended up being exactly what replacing Batman was like.  Maybe that was something of the point of that story, too.  It takes a will like Bruce Wayne's to make that work.

For a lot of heroes, legacies are an incredibly hard thing to come by.  You know Batman, you know the Avengers, but there are others like Azrael who slip through the cracks, even if they make a spectacular splash at some point.  For villains like Bane, legacies can be a hard thing to live down.  So it's only appropriate when something like "Angel and the Bane" happens, even if it leaves very little impact at all.  If you care about the characters, you'll check it out, and see exactly why it happened, and what it meant.  It could inspire someone to do something even greater in the future.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Catching Up On Some Recent Comics

Action Comics #12 (DC)
Grant Morrison rounds out the first year of the New 52 Action Comics by pitting Superman against Captain Comet, one of DC's cosmic superheroes, in an epic showdown.  Hey, it's the most relevant Comet's been in years!

Aquaman #11 (DC)
Geoff Johns continues the saga he may be only spending a little while longer on, if recent reports are to be believed.  Still, if it's true, he's still done far more to make Aquaman a vital character than anyone in the dozens of attempts over the years.  If nothing else, this will make an epic, massive collection, and be put right alongside Brightest Day, where Johns and Peter S. Tomasi previously worked on the character.

Atomic Robo and the Flying She-Devils of the Pacific #2 of 5 (Red 5)
A better issue than the previous one, filled with Brian Clevinger's trademark wit, and Robo's hapless reactions to the insanity around him.

Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures #5 (Red 5)
The latest issue of this anthology series is highlighted by Robo's confrontation with the man who killed Nikola Tesla (in this comics iteration), who was the creator of Atomic Robo (in the comics).

Batman: Earth One - Special Preview Edition (DC)
Yes, I bought and reviewed the full graphic novel last month, but I thought it'd be fun to see what it might feel like as a monthly-installment-sized edition.  Yes, this only covers the first fifteen pages, but it really does have a different feel.  There's a bonus preview of Scott Snyder's New 52, but the provided content is practically impenetrable, and certainly doesn't sell the Court of Owls concept, even though that's the name of the collection the preview is hawking.

Batman Incorporated #3 (DC)
The horrific shooting in Aurora, CO, delayed release of this book, though not necessarily shipments.  Morrison brings back Matches Malone, Bruce Wayne's underworld alter ego, while we learn what's really going on with Damian, who has for now assumed the identity of Redbird (which was also the name of Tim Drake's Robin-mobile).

Batman and Robin #12 (DC)
Tomasi concludes his Terminus arc with a big bang, which is a little disappointing in that Terminus didn't quite receive enough time to develop as a villain.  Long story short, the series was better earlier this year.

Before Watchmen: Comedian #2 of 6 (DC)
I read elsewhere that Edward Blake's introduction to Vietnam seemed a little generic.  I guess I haven't saturated myself with enough Vietnam fiction, since I found it to be pretty fascinating.  On the one hand, the Comedian considers this battlefield to be just another battlefield.  On the other hand, this is a guy whose best friend was just assassinated.  He has a right to be a little cynical, have an impulse to let loose a little.  That's my perspective, anyway.  Brian Azzarello also provides a fascinating insight into the possible origins of the emerging drug culture we still live in today, playing along the same notes as the second issue of Silk Spectre. (If you need a little perspective on it, Before Watchmen is an unlikely but certainly welcome forum.)

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #2 of 4 (DC)
Whatever else I might have had to say about this issue is kind of overshadowed by the recent passing of comics legend Joe Kubert, who inked this series over son Andy's art.  I'm not a historian of the craft, but I can certainly appreciate Kubert's huge legacy, and it's a shame that he had to die in the middle of his last great contribution.  As I said in my thoughts for the first issue, Joe's inking made a definite impact on Andy's art in this book, one that spoke to the generational nature of the project.  Where some people have only been able to view Before Watchman through the Alan Moore controversy, I've relished it as a chance to view comic books in their most pure and relevant form, something creators like Kurt Busiek and James Robinson have been trying to do ever since, well, Watchmen.  Comics have, for better or worse, come to be defined by superheroes and legacies, and that's something Before Watchmen fully embraced, what the original stories were all about, in fact.  And Joe Kubert had a huge role in developing that.  Sorry to see you go.

Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #2 of 6 (DC)
The genius of Before Watchmen can also be explained this way: we're finally going to see Ozymandias and Comedian on equal terms.  That's something the original stories surprisingly avoided.  At the end of this particular issue, we begin to see a rectification.

Creator-Owned Heroes #1 (Image)
Image has slowly become the go-to home for every conceivable comic book project, and while the founders envisioned a forum to create superheroes that would contend with the popularity of the books they left behind, the projects that've come along over the past decade have redefined the company as a catch-all for creators who would otherwise look for a place in small presses.  Which has in essence made Image a large small press.  Sometimes a book like The Walking Dead can happen, but that's very much the exception to the rule.  Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, regular writing partners who regularly work for the Big Two, join forces with Steve Niles (best known for his horror efforts) in launching a new anthology format, almost magazine-like offering, working on dream projects.  The problem is that the format short-changes those dreams.  To be frank, the examples in this debut issue don't feel like they were worth the effort.  But maybe they're better with commitment.

Demon Knights #12 (DC)
Paul Cornell may be writing this series for the trades.  I think that's the best thing to say about it.  I love Demon Knights, and I also wish it could be something more.  It's a rolling, sometimes rollicking adventure, but every time it seems like we're finally getting's the end of the issue.  So, Cornell may be writing for the trades.  This is not a complaint.

Earth 2 #4 (DC)
James Robinson continues his chronicle of the alternate Justice Society, in which everything old is new again. This now includes Al Pratt, the original Atom, who in this version of events is a soldier in the world army that sprang up in response to the Apokolips apocalypse.

Green Lantern #11 (DC)
Black Hand puts together a creepy family reunion and Sinestro brings Hal Jordan to his own personal Batcave, allowing us our first glimpse of the next Green Lantern.  Seriously, Geoff Johns could write this franchise forever.

National Comics: Eternity (DC)
The first of a series of one-shots reimagining various DC properties ("National Comics" is what the company was before it embraced the Detective in one of its flagship titles).  Jeff Lemire sees Kid Eternity basically as a Ghost Whisperer.  That's as much as there is to see here.

Peter Parker, Spider-Man #156.1 (Marvel)
I guess Marvel is releasing Point One issues of cancelled Spider-Man series to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the web-slinger.  This one is written by Roger Stern, a veteran I know best from 1990s Superman (but he's been around!).

RASL #15 (Cartoon)
The final issue of Jeff Smith's second comic book opus (his first being, of course, Bone), and finally an explanation for the title (an acronym for Romance at the Speed of Light, which was also the name of the third collection, and title of the eighth issue).  Things've boiled down to Rob's need to destroy the journals of Nikola Tesla (yes, the same dude as the comics creator of Atomic Robo) in order to save the universe, lest they be used to destroy it (which in fairness to Rob is a process that was already started across several alternate realities).  The big problem Rob gets to overcome in the finale is the revelation that Maya, the source of the eponymous tattoo and motivating factor in so many ways for Rob's journey throughout the series, is also his biggest threat.  He's been running the whole time toward this moment.  It's still disappointing that the series only lasted fifteen issues, but as Smith himself pointed out elsewhere, that still adds up to a lot of pages for any collection, and one way or another, this will sit proudly next to Bone on any discerning reader's shelf.  Perhaps like Demon Knights, it will read better and last longer in the memory in trade format.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #11 (DC)
Again, I have to say how different this series is from just about anything else, not just because of the distinctive art from Kenneth Rocafort, but because of Scott Lobdell's writing, which moves along at its own pace, a little like Grant Morrison's.  It is, then, any wonder that Lobdell and Rocafort have been tapped as the latest replacements in Superman?  Perhaps this will solve two issues.  This is a book that deserves to stand out, but it's also one that can be alienating (much like the heroes in the book themselves, who are all alienated), as has been proven since its launch last fall.  Perhaps more a little more convention will help readers discover how awesome it is.  This issue, by the way, features some familiar and unfamilar backstory for Koriand'r, better known as Stargirl.  Apparently she has some Farscape in her.