When Words Collide: A Crippled Bat(man) Doesn't Fly

Mon, May 20th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
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A CRIPPLED BAT DOESN'T FLY: I READ SOME COMICS, NEW AND OLD

Every Wednesday, I visit the local comic shop -- the one featured in this oddly-written local newspaper article from a couple of weeks ago -- and I buy a medium-sized stack of single issues that end up, now more than ever, in a pile I unofficially call, "Oh yeah, I need to get caught up on this stuff and I haven't read the last few issues either." And that cycle continues. But sometimes I read some of those comics and find out what I've been missing.

This is one of those times.

I read a bunch of comics over the weekend, and I liked them. Some of them, I liked a whole lot.

"The Brave and the Bold" #98, 100-101, by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo

These Haney/Aparo comics from 1971 and 1972 are outside the "gotta get caught up" mentality, of course, since this series ended long ago and I didn't even start paying attention to it as a young reader until it gave way to "Batman and the Outsiders" (also drawn by Jim Aparo). Sure, I read some random issues of "TB&tB" -- the first Batman comic I ever read might well have been issue #183, one of the many iterations of the Batman Dies motif -- but never with any awareness of the stories fitting into some larger series. They were just Batman stories, where he teamed up with some other dudes. As out of context as a "Super Friends" episode.

"The Brave and the Bold" doesn't really have any lingering subplots during the Bob Haney years, and I don't know if it ever really did, but there's a tonal consistency that makes it feel like a continuing story, even if no single episode refers to anything specific that came before. Haney imbues the stories with his signature weirdness -- with little regard for logic and plenty of regard for spectacle and surprise (which definitely works in favor of the stories' readability, though it's tough to read more than a few at a time without becoming numb to its charm) -- and this early work from Aparo shows him in full-on Neal-Adams-meets-Milton-Caniff mode. The stories range from supernatural horror with the Phantom Stranger to superhero-laden crime with Batman playing Robert J. Ironside to weird sci-fi with Metamorpho.

But it's Aparo's character work that makes everything so appealing. He's the 1970s cop show of comic book artists. And Haney reminds us, "A crippled bat doesn't fly, Alfred!" Because there's no reason to be subtle when you're keeping it real.

"Uncanny Avengers" #1-8, by Rick Remender, John Cassaday, Olivier Coipel, and Daniel Acuna

The first issue of this series was a slice of blandness with an insane ending, but the ending was what mattered. Remender isn't just following his "Uncanny X-Force" template with this series -- he's expanding upon the mythology he began building with that first issue with Jerome OpeƱa all those years ago. "Uncanny Avengers" is like a more potentially-mainstream-friendly sequel to that "X-Force" comic. Its edges aren't necessarily softer, but the cast of characters is less obscure and its scale is immediately more vast and yet recognizable. The Super-Nazi mind control battlefield in New York City in the opening arc is like something from an event comic compressed into four issues. Because it features a bunch of familiar characters and its drawn by John Cassaday, it feels more like a Marvel movie than "Uncanny X-Force" ever did.

But things become increasingly more outlandish after that.

The addition of Daniel Acuna's full-color art helps to break "Uncanny Avengers" out of the it-looks-like-a-Joss-Whedon-film-on-paper trap that's inescapable in the first story arc, so by the time we get to issues #6-8, the stylishness of the visuals helps to mark Remender's script as a particularly sleek brand of superhero nonsense. But superhero nonsense in the best possible way, with outer-space catastrophes and a hero rising from the ashes of his pathetic career and Captain America on a mission and a rapture brought about by time-travelling Apocalypse babies all grown up.

I could read Rick Remender and Daniel Acuna comics all day. They leer down on blandness from the cosmic heavens.

"Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray" #1-2, by Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham

This five-issue series was apparently something the creators started by using Kickstarter and then it was picked up by Image for distribution. That's my understanding, anyway, but I'd never even heard of the comic before I stumbled across an ad for it in the back of another Image Comic. The art looked decent. The premise looked potentially fun: it's about an adventurer who can access the abilities of five literary archetypes -- the archer, the detective, the wizard, the samurai, and the vampire. It presented itself as unabashed pulpiness.

So I downloaded the first two issues on comiXology. (I'd certainly never seen any issues of the series at my local shop, or any other store I've been to in the last two months.) It turned out to be a pretty good first couple of issues.

Mooneyham's art is scratchy but traditional, kind of like if you has Dick Giordano's pencils inked by Klaus Janson on a fast-moving train. It doesn't look anything like what you might think of when you think of "manga," but it has the accelerated pace of a good action-adventure manga, with relatively few words and a whole lot of dynamic movement. Barbiere and Mooneyham jump quickly from scene to scene and even when there's a prolonged sequence it's one amplified moment after another. There's little room to catch your breath -- it's a bit like all the action scenes of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" back to back.

I don't know that there's anything substantial beneath the surface of "Five Ghosts" -- even the literary archetypes are used only to give hero Fabian Gray some cool things to do, using a visual shorthand to "explain" his superhuman powers -- but I enjoyed reading these first two issues and I'm definitely going to check out the rest of the series. It not only presented itself as unabashed pulpiness, but it lives up to that promise enthusiastically.

"FF" #5-7, by Matt Fraction, Mike Allred, and Joe Quinones, and "Hawkeye" #8-10, by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Annie Wu, and Francesco Francavilla

The only thing linking "FF" and "Hawkeye" together is the sensibility of Matt Fraction, but that's a pretty big thing. I still have great fondness for his work with Ed Brubaker on "Immortal Iron Fist," but these two comics -- "FF" and "Hawkeye" -- are Matt Fraction's consistently best Marvel work so far.

Both series share a lightness that's balanced by a tragic core. The "FF" presents a non-team of barely heroes reluctantly defending the world in the absence of the Fantastic Four and "Hawkeye" shows the exploit of Clint Barton when he isn't facing off against Kree and Skrulls and intergalactic war. In "FF," the kids of the Future Foundation are mostly outcasts and even if they aren't, their "family," in the form of Reed Richards and his clan, has abandoned them. And Scott Lang, leader of the temporary-FF, is still a mourning father who's terrified to risk yet more lives in the pursuit of some superhero ideal. In "Hawkeye," Clint Barton is a working-class hero playing around in a world of giants, but even in his personal life he's always falling short. He's a terrible boyfriend, an embarrassing ex-husband, and he's too easily swayed by the allure of what's in front of him at the moment. Yet in both "FF" and "Hawkeye," those inner conflict are contrasted by a jaunty liveliness of character interplay and plot dynamics. None of these characters wallow in their misery. Fraction won't let them.

The art for both series is like a showcase of some of comicdom's best, with Mike Allred providing humor and superhuman spectacle in "FF" and David Aja making "Hawkeye" far more visually daring than any description of the series could capture. Even when guest artists come in to work on those two comics, we get the likes of Joe Quinones and Francesco Francavilla and the books continue to look great.

Out of the two series, I prefer "FF" for its ambitious pace and huge cast of characters, but "Hawkeye" is equally worthwhile in the way it circles back on the core of Clint Barton and presents the drama like a 1960s spy thriller. It's sexy and dangerous, while "FF' is goofy and outlandish. I prefer the latter, these days, particularly when it looks as good as this.

"Happy" #1-4, by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson

I'd never made it past issue #1 of this series when it came out. I think I flipped through issue #2, but it looked as bad as the first issue and I picked up the rest because that's what I do -- buy Grant Morrison comics -- even though it didn't look the least bit interesting.

I had dismissed the series because I saw it as a parody of Garth Ennis comics. It looked like Morrison teaming up with Darick Robertson (of Ennis's long-running "The Boys") to do his version of ultra-grim and ultra-gritty with a kind of sickeningly horrific cuteness in the form of a little flying blue unicorn cartoon creature. Maybe it was Morrison mashing up Ennis and Mark Millar.

I didn't see the point in it. It wasn't funny and it was page after page of ugliness.

After reading the whole thing, I have a completely different take on "Happy."

It's still not among Morrison's best efforts, and it remains unpleasant to actually look at, but I read it less as a piss-take on Ellis or Millar and more of a traditional Morrisonian attempt to celebrate the power of hope and imagination. The story is really less of a parody comic and more of a further exploration of the kind of things he was doing with "The Filth" and "Joe the Barbarian." It's a blend of those two things that just doesn't happen to look nearly as good as either of them.

But its story about a disgraced cop turned killer turned mob target is just a ruse to establish the depths out of which the hero must climb. It's a story of hope and rescue and if not redemption then at least it shows resolve. It's a comic called "Happy" and it's the opposite of that right up until the very end, but in the end there's a moment when that happiness is earned. It's a fleeting moment, but it's not a superficial one.

"Happy" seems like an experiment to make an optimistic comic out one of the bleakest situations possible. It almost succeeds, but the ugliness of the streets and sickly-sweet garishness of the flying blue unicorn is a bit too much to overcome. Maybe that's the point, but that also makes it tough to read.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, grant morrison, happy, batman, uncanny avengers

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