Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
November 2010

Not Batman/Superman Slashfic. Mostly.

Superman/Batman v.2: Supergirl (DC 2004), Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (Archaia 2007)

Batman or Superman?

It's a decision everyone must face. Do you prefer the big, powerful, happy, valiant Man of Steel, or the dark, depowered, psychotic and always-about-to-snap Dark Knight?

As you debate, you may ponder on the meaning of heroism itself, and the true value of putting on a costume and saving the world, of faith in gods versus hope in mere human police. You may discuss thinkers as far flung as Nietzsche, Wertham, C.S. Lewis and Kant. You may sit with your hipster friends babbling until the coffee house closes, until finally, you choose Batman.

Because he is just awesome.

Everyone likes Batman better. He's a normal man who dresses up like a bat. He thinks that this is the best way to deal with the problem of crime in his hometown and avenge his parents' death.

It should be hard to relate to him because of his wealth, but it actually makes things easier, because all of us, if we had that kind of money, would probably do some crazy stuff. I'd build a Batmobile. I'd put on a bat suit and kick a criminal's butt. I'd probably get bored with the whole thing, but I can understand the guy's drive.

Superman is a lot harder to relate to, in the same way that few people prefer the Heaven sections of Paradise Lost. Not that people don't like Superman -- I can think of few comics I enjoyed more than Superman: Birthright -- but he is a symbol, a personification of hope and human nobility, not someone to identify with. When you read a Superman comic, there is little chance that Supes himself will surprise you. He will always do the right thing, and rarely lose his temper with anyone besides Lex Luthor. Batman might beat you half to death and leave you suspended one hundred feet above the street; Superman, once he's brought you to justice, will think about cussing you out and then feel ashamed of himself.

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So Superman/Batman is more than just a publicity ploy. Done right, the comic is a great chance to play off this natural tension. Jeph Loeb, author of the retro-tastic Superman For All Seasons and Batman: The Long Halloween penned this particular tale, about the origin of the classic Supergirl, Superman's cousin from Krypton. It's fantastic, fun stuff.

When a Kryptonite meteorite breaks up in Earth's atmosphere, Batman insists that Superman stay inside and out of harm's way, harm's way being the Kryptonite-laced air. What appears to be a large chunk of the meteorite lands at the bottom of Gotham City's bay, but upon investigation, Batman discovers that it is actually a ship, not so different from the ship that once carried Kal-El.

While Batman is investigating the ship, a blonde bombshell, naked as daybreak, steals his boat and takes it on a confused joyride, then wanders through Gotham City causing havoc. Batman subdues her, deducing that she came from the Kryptonian ship and will be vulnerable to his handy stash of Kryptonite that he keeps around for . . . hey, what exactly does he keep it for? Does he think he'll fight Superman?

Anyway . . . once Superman gets involved, he and Kara converse in Kryptonese (translatable with the handy key at the end of the book) and discover that she is his cousin, placed on a ship that didn't make it off Krypton, but which survived the explosion.

Okay, so it's a little far-fetched, but Jeph Loeb is obviously having fun, as the story winds its way through Wonder Woman's Paradise Island, an army of monsters cloned from the Superman-killer Doomsday, a jaunt to Apokolips to battle Darkseid, and another jaunt home to battle Darkseid in Smallville itself.

Loeb is definitely not trying for high art. This story is packed with every DC character and DC plot trick one can think of, dancing at the border of cheesiness. It's quite refreshing. Too many comics have gone dark and decompressed lately; this one hearkens back to when superhero comics simply meant FUN.

Michael Turner, who sadly passed away a few years after this story, fills it with dynamism. Each character is a GOD. His women are tall and stunning. Batman and Superman's muscles practically burst out of their tights. He manages to make Wonder Woman the most babealicious babe that ever babed and a towering butt-kicking figure who will not take guff from the boys' club. Supergirl looks comic-book babe sexy, but she retains an innocence and naïve charm that many artists can't put into their hotties.


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A few shots of the ladies are too Maxim. The Amazons of Paradise Island cannot battle unless they wear metal lingerie. Kara, for some reason, takes to low-rise jeans that show her thong straps -- ugh.

If you can roll your eyes and get past that, you will see fight scenes rage through the nightmare world of Apokolips, where gouts of streaming magma burst from mile-wide pits. Turner's crowning character is Darkseid, a figure of monolithic horror. Darkseid's odd design means that a lot of artists have drawn him as big lumpy mushroom. Not Turner. His Darkseid glowers to outdo Sauron from a massive throne, all rock-muscle and ash skin. When Darkseid slams Batman to the ground, we can hear the Dark Knight's bones breaking. He looms from Superman's shattered home, dark and furious, carrying all the fury of burning Apokolips with him.


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Wonder Woman acquits herself well also, battling Darkseid's Furies. Instead of fighting fair, she goes for the throat of their leader, Granny Goodness. "I don't care for how this game is being played, Granny. Time to change the rules."

Despite all the fighty fight scenes, the heart of the story is the contrast between Batman and Superman's attitudes toward the newcomer.

Clark is instantly trusting, seeking a kindred spirit. Batman is suspicious, asking her question after question about her origin, probing the holes in her memory. The rather perky and innocent Kara snaps at Batman, "Why don't you trust me?" Batman coolly replies, "Because you so desperately want me to."

Superman fights a mind-controlled Kara, forced to use Kryptonite that might kill both him and his cousin. But Batman comes off best in this particular comic, as he takes on Doomsday with only a spear and Darkseid bare-knuckled. He forces Darkseid to capitulate through some dirty tricks of which Superman and Wonder Woman would disapprove -- and this is after Darkseid, as said, breaks half his bones and nearly cuts him to pieces during their fisticuffs.

Again . . . we all like Batman better.

But you can buy this comic for Superman, if you want. Batman won't be mad . . . mostly.

I want to stop a moment to talk about how awesome Wonder Woman is, actually. Although I've only recently started to buy her monthly comic, Wonder Woman has always been a superhero no one other female superhero can live up to.

The other major female heroes at Marvel and DC are male spinoffs like Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman and Spider-Woman, or clones of the Dark Lady persona, like Black Widow and Black Cat and Huntress. Ms. Marvel is the closest Marvel heroine to Wonder Woman, and is a fantastic character, but her life as an amnesiac army pilot has never been as interesting as Diana Prince, who is torn between her two worlds of Amazonia and America.

WW's monthly comic right is at a great jumping-on point, caught in a dystopic alternate world penned by J. Michael Straczynski, who penned many of the best Spider-Man and Thor stories of the last two years. Straczynski is also on Superman, while Justice League and X-Men vet Grant Morrison is tackling Batman, making DC's Big Three the best they've been in a while, and you can tell, because a Marvel-head like me doesn't often buy DC's Big Three.

At a time when Spider-Man and the X-Men remain mediocre (although the Captain America, Iron Man and Thor comics are fantastic), DC's big hitters are really outdoing the Not-So-Distinguished Competition. Step it up, Marvel!

Mouse Guard: I like fighting mice. I read all the Redwall books, every increasingly-identical one of them, until I was twenty. Not just Cluny the Scourge, but Tsarmina the Tyrant, Slagar the Cruel, Gabool the Wild, Ferahgo the Assassin, Swartt Sixclaw, and the interchangeably heroic mice who battled them. I could draw a map of the Abbey from memory.

Nonetheless, I never picked up Mouse Guard. I think I had decided it was too much of a Redwall fanfic, although for some reason I picked up the similar Mice Templar and enjoyed it despite the clichés.

I gave Mouse Guard another try recently, and wow.

It's stunning.

The story really isn't much. It's not quite a Redwall clone, but it's close. There are no snarling, pierced-and-tattooed rats and weasels. In this case, the Mouse Guard is a group of brave knights who protect mice from their many, many predators, but who are divided by internal conflict.

After we meet the Guard and are treated to some great battle scenes with snakes and crabs, a group of Guard mice, dissatisfied with the Guard's role as mere protectors and not overlords, stage a coup against the Mouse Guard's home in Lockhaven fortress. A few brave characters are cut off by the rebellion, trying to return to Lockhaven before it's burned. They find the legendary Black Axe, a former Mouse Guard hero, and coax him out of retirement, to lead the counterattack.

That's the story. Not much.

But the art. Wow.


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Anthropomorphic animal stories have always made special mention of nature. No artist, though, has ever captured what Peterson does. I can't call it "otherworldly," because it is our world, but his art recalls a sense that many of us don't pay attention to -- a wild, unkempt place around and under us.

Watercolor washes illuminate spare details -- a few ragged leaves, a tree thick with darkness broken only by staggered rows of mushroom caps. Clumps of tall grass tower, a net blocking the sky, breaking up the miles of sandy shoreline.

Dark coils, pebbled with scales, slide past the mice when a snake threatens them. Rain and red sky make the world stark blood-and-black in battle. Monstrous crabs, littered with warty knobs, scuttle over houses, the size of walking cars to our eyes. The vaulted arches of Lockhaven Keep disappear into darkness far from the torches that light their old stone walls.

Peterson's great talent is in texture. The sparsely veined leaves are diaphanously thin against crosshatched trees and pine-needle-thick floors. The walls of Lockhaven, through only a smattering of dots, are knobby and uneven. The mice are squat and could almost be cute, but Peterson's spare sketching makes them wild, darting creatures.


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His watercolor washes cover the world in subtle tones. In the end, as the Black Axe battles the traitor who has stolen his trademark weapon, their combat plays out across shifting shadow and spots of bright light. It's a very subtle touch, but emblematic of the whole book. Setting and characters fade into a world of stark natural beauty and desolation.

Watership Down, one of the greatest novels ever written, was full of the twined beauty and danger of the natural world. Grass, plants, soil and man-made items shaped the rabbits' lives. Peterson, despite an uninspired story, manages to put the wildness of Watership Down into pictures. I only wish his next project would actually be an adaptation of Richard Adams' famous novel.

For now we have Mouse Guard, and the world is richer.

Next issue: 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, pow blam boom kazooie shabok spok madunk ow. The jolly holly holidays and comics, in thirty.

[P.S. I recently got a note suggesting some stuff to review, and I took the note and I shall review. If you have anything you would like me to review, email IGMS and they will pass it on.]

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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