It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the best of comics; it was the worst of comics.
It was BATMAN GOTHAM ADVENTURES #15 and SUPERMAN ADVENTURES #34.
BATMAN is a fine example of the best of what comics have to offer. SUPERMAN is a rather... episodic piece of work, easily forgotten and rendered to the dustbin of my collection.
Let's start with BATMAN. It's written by Scott Peterson, pencilled by Tim Levins, inked by Rob Leigh, colored by Lee Loughridge, and lettered by Tim Harkins. I point all of that out at the outset because they all play a part in this issue. I can comment on each part for you.
The draw for me to this issue is Tim Levins on art. This will not surprise regular readers of PCR. Levins is the artist on the late and lamented THE COPYBOOK TALES and the more recent SIREN mini-series. His cartoony style seems a natural fit for this title. (Strangely, a wide variety of artists seem able to do the style. Most surprisingly, I suppose, is ex-IMPULSE artist Craig Rousseau.) There are spots this issue where it looks like Levins is, indeed, drawing COPYBOOK again. Take the middle panel on page 8, as Tim Drake theorizes. It's just a classic, cute, expressive panel. There's more life in that one panel than many comics can pack in a page or a scene.
He's also able to do action sequences pretty well, and Peterson gives him a number of silent pages to strut his stuff with. The first three pages show off Bane's pure power really well, putting him large on the page, even if he's not the one coming at the reader. Pages 10 and 11 give us the feeling of a quick fight, which most probably should be. Comics writers have a tendency to overwrite fight scenes. You've got to love it when a character speaks three sentences in the time it takes to throw a punch. But with just a sound effect or two and some well-posed characters, Levins pulls off a great scene.
Rob Leigh's inks do a good job in bringing out Levins art, while still maintaining the iconic feel of the title. I should probably explain that one: this book is very stylistic. It's not a realistic style of art that carries the day here. As such, design counts for everything. You don't want something highly detailed and terribly three-dimensional. You almost want it a bit flat.
Scott Peterson has one big strike against him from the start. You can't help but think in the corner of your mind as you pick up this issue that "Oh, no, it's an editor trying to be a writer." Aside from a couple of pacing problems I might have with the issue, it's an amazingly thoughtful issue. For starters, this one has a theme to it. It's something you always hear fellow Bat-writer Devin Grayson talk about and it's something "great literature" tends to have. There's some thematic element to it. Most writers don't bother with it, and most of the times you don't even notice it. But the whole point of this issue is the thematic element of Giving versus Taking or Selfishness versus Selflessness. I won't say anymore for fear of giving away the crux of the story. (PCR is, generally, a spoiler-free zone.) But the ending leaves you thinking and marveling at how the story was so well constructed to bring us there.
Batman is treated as the brilliant detective that he is, but that gets mixed in well with another portion which is largely forgotten: He's a teacher. It may seem like Robin is the one with lots to learn and that Batwoman functions as the older sister, but here they both play second fiddle to Batman's mind. Here he picks apart each piece of the puzzle along the way about two steps ahead of his students. It's done with a straight face, but will still make you chuckle a little bit.
Lee Loughridge uses an excellent color palette here, as always. The tones are warmer and more open than you might expect. With this style of art, the coloring is a major component of the overall feel of an issue. Loughridge uses nice solids and gradient colors in a muted way. They don't stick out. They don't really sculpt the characters, so much as just shadow them.
I do have one complaint here and that is that he seems too eager to place shadows on certain character's face. It's a little distracting. The best examples I could give of this are the two shots of Bruce Wayne's face on the bottom of pages 7 and 8.
Finally, Harkins' lettering is fine, but I miss the gothic feel of Richard Starkings/Comicraft's lettering from the early days of this title's predecessor. This stuff just looks too flat to me too often. There's little character in the lettering. (I'm also a firm believer in the lettering not simply disappearing. Most people will tell you that if you don't notice the lettering that the letterer has done a good job. Besides being an insult to the letterers, I think that's wrong. Lettering is the final part of the 'feel' of a comic. It's tough to quantify.)
I think I'm sick of writing about this issue by now. Suffice it to say, it's really good. It's a complete-in-one-issue story. It's only $2. You can thank me for it later. Buy now.
On the other end of the spectrum is the easily-forgotten SUPERMAN ADVENTURES #34. It's a rehash of every other mystical possession/Egyptian faery story you've probably ever read. Combining the two doesn't necessarily give it an extra special feeling.
But before we go any further. Take a look at that cover. Granted, Superman can see through walls and all, but Lois is still giving him quite an eyeful on that cover, isn't she? At least on Buffy the Vampire slayer, you can tell when she's about to go into an action sequence: she changes into pants!
(To be fair, Fate gets an eyeful on page 16, too, when Lois' skirt flips up in the back. Sheesh)
The special guest star in this issue is Doctor Fate. I'm not entirely sure if it's just his character, or a rather aggressive dialogue job on writer Mark Millar's part, but does he ever shut up? I could rewrite all of Doc Fate's dialogue and save the letterer about a gallon of ink. For example: "The loose bricks and shards of glass will kill innocent people down below unless I intervene . . . But I cannot give this creature an opportunity to escape, either." Artist Mike Manley does a pretty good job of showing the "loose bricks" and "shards of glass" dropping towards a group of people, rendering the balloons redundant. Maybe something like "Can't let the debris injure innocents, but the creature must be stopped, too!" would work better, as uninspired as it sounds. I don't know. But two word balloons (so that Fate can take a break between lines) is a bit much.
Now that I look back at it, it's not just Fate. They all talk too damned much. You can look at the first two pages and figure out the point of the story without all the repetitive cliched dialogue lifted out of plenty of MacGyver/Buffy/Indiana Jones episodes. Sill archaeologists find something they shouldn't and let loose the evil spirit. It's almost painful how cliché that is. When a movie like THE MUMMY does this, it manages to pull it off because it's such a throwback to those days of Saturday Afternoon serials and pulp fiction. But this is just hackneyed.
Getting back to the art, I've never seen anyone's pencils able to overpower Terry Austin's inks. But Manley manages. Austin has a distinctive art style. I wasn't sure how well it would mesh with the animated style, but I've gotten used to it and come to enjoy it.
However, this stuff doesn't have the same iconic representation of the cartoon that BATMAN GOTHAM ADVENTURES often has. Granted, that style lends itself to a more iconic over representative styling, but this just looks sloppy by comparison. Austin has some panels in which the ink lines never fluctuate. Look at the close-up on Clark Kent on page 12.
Finally, Phil Felix's lettering here is just as large and uninspired as Harkins'. The only difference is that Felix's work looks less consistent and steady. Harkins' stuff looks practically mechanical next to this.
I've really enjoyed Millar's Superman stuff, but this one is a real let down. Save your money.