Thursday, November 25, 2021

DC Showcase Short Films - Review and Analysis

The DC Showcase short-films are a series of animated shorts that started in 2010. They shed spotlight on various characters within the DC Universe. These shorts are part of the broader DC Animated Movie Universe. 

These shorts start with The Spectre, a story that borrows from a lot of sources. It's inspired by the Wrath of the Spectre comics from the 70's but also takes many cues from the more modern Spectre stories. Right before this short came out I had just read Jules Feiffer's book, The Great Comic Book Heroes. I loved the Spectre story that was featured in it, so, I was primed for this. It features a Jim Corrigan here who works in Los Angeles rather than New York, as he did in the original Golden Age Spectre stories. Here, Jim goes after an old flame who paid to have her father, a Hollywood movie star, killed so she could get his money. It's a basic murder plot with horror elements but it does a good job of revealing just who The Spectre is... a cop who was murdered and became a ghost to exact cruel vengeance on criminals. Although this is pretty straightforward, it offers very impressive visuals. The animation is solid too. A strong effort right out of the gate.     

Next is the Jonah Hex short. This is what the film version of Jonah Hex should have been. It's a straight up western story that gives you more of a glimpse into who Jonah Hex is in twelve minutes than that terrible movie ever does. This was the cartoon that made me notice the Jonah Hex character. After watching this, I immediately went to my local comics shop and bought up as much Jonah Hex as I could find. In this story Hex arrives in a town in search of a man called Red Doc, who was killed the day before by a corrupt Madame named Lorraine. Hex meets Lorraine who tries to kill him. Her attempt on his life fails and he forces her to take him to an abandoned mine. When she and Hex go into the mine, we find out that Lorraine has murdered many men for their money and stored their bodies there. As Hex finds and secures the body of Red Doc, Lorraine tries to kill him again. Hex knocks her out and leaves her to die. Lorraine awakens and sees Hex ready to ride off. She offers to make him her new partner, but Hex responds by kicking down the rope, trapping her there. It really is entertaining stuff and makes me wish we could get a Jonah Hex animated series.   

The Green Arrow short is another great one. It feels like an extension of his appearances in Justice League Unlimited. We get an appearance by Black Canary too which is sweet. While this doesn't really explore Oliver Queen's motivations, enough of his personality is presented that you get a feel for who he is. Here, Arrow is tasked with protecting a princess at an airport from an assassination attempt by Count Vertigo. Action ensues and we get to see that, despite his brash arrogance, Green Arrow is really an honorable superhero... who loves Black Canary very much.  

The longest of these short films, Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adamhas to be the best of the DC Showcase cartoons. It tells the origin of Captain Marvel (now called Shazam in popular media, even though that is the wizard's name). The origin story overlaps with a story Clark Kent is reporting on about underprivileged youth in Fawcett City. When Shazam's encounter with Billy Batson summons Black Adam, a battle between the new superhero, Captain Marvel. and his evil counterpart is unleashed in Fawcett City. Superman shows up to help, and thus we see the first meeting between Superman and Captain Marvel. What I love about this short is just how fun it is. This is the cartoon that made me want to read Captain Marvel and explore the character's history. It's such an engaging story and in the last few years, thanks to this cartoon, I have become a huge Captain Marvel fan.    

With Catwoman, DC decided to continue Selina Kyle's story from Batman: Year One, which is one of DC's best animated adaptations. In this short, Selina Kyle goes after diamond traffickers who have also abducted several women. Selina serves as an anti-hero and brings down the operation, while also managing to keep a little something for herself in the end. It's a really fun cartoon for Catwoman fans. Plus, it's written by Paul Dini, so you can't go wrong.  

Sgt. Rock was fun. I've never really been drawn to war comics and Sgt. Rock is one of those classic Golden Age characters that I know almost nothing about. I went into this expecting a story about WWII combat. Imagine my surprise when Sgt. Rock battles supernatural enemies. Sgt. Rock leading a band of archetypal monsters against a band of Nazi zombies? Yes, please! 

With the Death animated short, well, I surprisingly really enjoyed it. I'll admit, I never have been too invested in Neil Gaiman's Sandman books (or Gaiman's writing in general) but I like the existential nature of this short and the overall plot of a down-on-his-luck artist coping with personal demons really spoke to me. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the Death character, the story was interesting. I really felt connected to Vincent; a very relatable character.   

The Phantom Stranger feels like a more sophisticated Scooby Doo cartoon. Taking place in the 1970's, it tells the story of a young woman named Marcie who attends a party at an abandoned mansion with her friends. An enigmatic being named Seth tries to seduce her and her friends in an effort to steal their souls. The Phantom Stranger shows up and must save them. Being a casual fan of The Stranger, I really enjoyed this and am glad to see the character get more exposure.  

The Adam Strange short seems to be a reimagining of the Adam Strange mythos. It's less faithful to the original concept of Adam Strange, DC's version of Flash Gordon, and more about telling a story with a new version of the character. The plot is interesting enough and features a nice amount of action, with Strange fighting to protect a heavily populated asteroid colony from a race of invading insects. For fans of Adam Strange I'm sure this is a treat but I found it kind of boring.   

A Death in the Family is less an animated adaptation of the 4-issue Batman story and more like supplemental material for the Under the Red Hood movie. It would have been nice if they had made this an actual feature-length prequel that adapted the story and explored Jason Todd's time as Robin further. Instead, the short runs just over 20 minutes long, but the full interactive version runs about 90-minutes. It feels like cartilage material was added to Under the Red Hood, which already was a good Batman film. I would have preferred if this cartoon was a straight-up adaptation, as faithful to the comic book story as The Dark Knight Returns movie was to its story. A Death in the Family is one of my favorite Batman stories but this "adaptation" left me cold. 

*NOTE: There are other short-films in the works that I have not yet seen: a Kamandi short, one featuring The Losers team, a Blue Beetle cartoon, and a Constantine story.                                                       

Monday, November 15, 2021

Justice League (2001-2006) - Review and Analysis

In the late 1990's, thanks to the success of the Batman and Superman cartoons, Warner Bros. Animation decided to proceed with plans for a Justice League cartoon. There were many ideas floated around the offices of Warner Animation about how to bring the show to life. First and foremost, Bruce Timm and his team would be the showrunners, for obvious reasons.

The show was originally going to feature the classic Silver and Bronze Age versions of The Justice League. Barry Allen was set to be The Flash, Hal Jordan was going to serve as the show's Green Lantern. Hawkgirl was not going to appear and John Stewart was only supposed to make a cameo appearance. Aquaman was also meant to be a main character. The producers abandoned that approach as they thought it would feel like an extension of the old Super Friends cartoon. More diversity was desired and they wanted the show to feel modern. So, Hal and Barry were deleted and they brought in John Stewart (who was more brash and aggressive than Hal) and Wally West (who was considered by Bruce Timm to be younger and cooler than Barry). Hawkgirl was added for more female representation as well. Martian Manhunter, the alien known as J'onn J'onzz, was originally set to make only a few cameo appearances in a couple episodes. The producers felt, since he was a founding member of the team, that J'onn  should be part of the main cast.

Justice League debuted to much fanfare on Nov. 17th, 2001 on Cartoon Network. The show was clearly an extension of the DC Animated Universe and all the characters were faithful to their comic book counterparts. Kevin Conroy returned as the voice of Batman but Tim Daly was replaced by George Newburn as the voice of Superman. 

The great thing about this show is, because of the ensemble cast and their differing traits and characterizations, a diverse set of plots and adventures could be had. Wild science fiction stories could be told along with the more grounded crime fiction shows. Because it's a team show the character interactions are what make it special. We get to see how each of the main characters approach their roles as superheroes and how they sometimes clash with their teammates. 

In 2004, the show was rebranded as Justice League Unlimited (abbreviated to JLU). Bruce Timm has famously said that the final episode of season 2 was supposed to be the finale but, because of high ratings, Cartoon Network ordered more episodes. Rather than continue on with the same show, Timm and his producers decided to make a new show that was based on those first two seasons. Rather than simply show the Justice League in more cartoons, the new show would feature an expanded cast from all corners of the DC Universe.

The new cast included the original show's stars but now featured Green Arrow, Black Canary, The Question, The Huntress, Supergirl, Booster Gold, and Captain Atom, among others. Justice League Unlimited was a broader show than its predecessor with many multi-part story arcs. It continued to explore the main characters motivations but also seemed more operatic in scope. The fun sense of adventure and banter between the characters remained but I think the new show told better stories. A fun thing for any DC Comics reader to do is to watch the show and see how many tertiary characters you can spot. I always remember seeing some of my favorites (like Swamp Thing) appear briefly in the Watchtower (the Justice League satellite headquarters).

In many ways, this is my favorite superhero cartoon based on DC characters, even if I revisit it less than BTAS or Superman. The expanded cast and the expertly crafted writing and dialogue shows that Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and the other producers really understand these characters and the world they inhabit. Justice League was a great team-up show with a lot of heart. JLU was all that and more, telling deeper, more layered and dramatic stories while still managing to be fun. I know this is a beloved show and I highly recommend it as well. It's reputation is well deserved.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Flash (1990) - Review and Analysis

The Flash debuted in 1990 on CBS as TV's answer to the 1989 Batman film. It started life as a treatment for a superhero show in 1988. The project, pitched by executive producers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, was called Unlimited Powers. The premise followed a team of four superheroes (The Flash, Green Arrow, Dr. Occult, and a man made of rock called Block) that would cease using their powers by government order after the U.S. and Russia created a "Limited Powers Act" to help promote world peace. The Flash would be one of those heroes and would refuse to give up his powers. CBS loved the idea of a superhero show but told the producers to use only one hero because of cost concerns. 

Bilson and De Meo chose The Flash. There was a problem though. DC wanted to promote Wally West as The Flash because, by 1990, Barry Allen, the 2nd Flash, had died in the Crisis On Infinite Earth's saga that closed out the Bronze Age. Wally was formerly Kid Flash, Barry's sidekick, but the producers hated Wally as The Flash. So, compromise was reached. This new show would use Barry Allen as The Flash and combine the character with aspects of Wally. Barry Allen, the police scientist, would have Wally's red hair and need to eat a lot of food to maintain his metabolism. They also wanted the show to be dark, urban and dramatic. They used the Batman movie as a template for how the show would look. Art-deco buildings and vintage cars were merged with current technology to give the series a timeless quality.    
The search was on for a great cast. Bilson and De Meo tested more than fifty actors for the lead role. Eventually, John Wesley Shipp, an Emmy award-winning soap opera star, was cast. He didn't know anything about comic books or The Flash and had to do a lot of research. At first, when he was told about the project, he declined, as he didn't want to be seen in tights. After reading the script, he was impressed enough to audition. Shipp has a lot of charm as Barry Allen and plays the role with such confidence and sincerity that you constantly root for him. This is how a superhero should look and act on screen. 
Amanda Pays was cast as Tina McGee, a scientist and love interest for Barry who was then Wally's girlfriend in the comics. Alex D
ésert played Julio Mendez, a character created for the show, that served as Barry's lab partner. While both Amanda Pays and Alex Désert are fun to watch, they lack the charm of a well-rounded cast when compared to later superhero shows like Lois and Clark but, if given enough time to develop I'm sure they would have been stellar.
One of the special and most remembered things about this show is the Trickster cameos, played famously by Mark Hamill, before he became even more famous for his role as The Joker on Batman: The Animated Series. Here, Mark Hamill has fun in his role as the psychotic villain and, by his own admission, he even lobbied for the part. The Trickster episodes are some of the most fun episodes of the series entire run. 
Famed comics artist and Rocketeer creator, Dave Stevens, drew the concept art for the Flash costume. 
The costume was a driving force in getting the show off the ground because, without a credible costume, this show wouldn't be taken seriously. Having seen what Warner Bros. had done with both Superman: The Movie in the 1978 and taking cues from the then-new Batman film, Bilson and De Meo knew that the Flash suit could make or break the series. They knew they didn't want spandex as it wouldn't accentuate the human form or offer a heroic look. They also wanted to deliver a movie quality superhero costume on a TV budget. After wrestling with CBS, who wanted The Flash to wear a gray sweatsuit without any superhero motifs and no mask, Bilson and De Meo compromised. They would get the red Flash costume that they wanted, but The Flash couldn't wear any yellow boots. 
So, after enlisting award winning costumer Robert Short, famous for his work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), a prototype costume was created out of latex. They used various techniques such as flocking, sculpting, and painting to create a suit with a unique muscular texture. Eight suits were made at a total cost of nearly $1 million USD. The suit itself was very hot and claustrophobic to wear. John Wesley Shipp lost some weight in the suit at first and considered seeing a shrink for his claustrophobia until accommodations were made. Cooling vents were installed in the suit to keep the actor cool and his time in the suit was more limited. As difficult and expensive as it was to bring the Flash suit to screen, it looks amazing for 1990 and, in my opinion, remains one of the best superhero costumes ever produced for any production.

After six weeks of filming (and nearly $6 million), the 90-minute TV pilot debuted on September 20th, 1990 and was a resounding success. The show ran for a season but after twenty-two  episodes, the series was not renewed for a second season. That's most likely because of it being an effects heavy show, expensive to produce, and it faced stiff competition in the form of The Simpsons and The Cosby Show. It's a real shame that this show wasn't renewed because, by all accounts, the second season was supposed to be even more effects heavy with a bigger budget. The season two pilot was supposed to be a two-part feature that had multiple classic rogues of The Flash in a plot to take down the Scarlet Speedster. 

Once the dust settled, multiple episodes of this series were edited together for three direct-to-video movies. The Flash (1990), The Flash II: Revenge of The Trickster (1991), and The Flash III: Deadly Nightshade (1992). Later still, John Wesley Shipp (and a few of his fellow cast members) returned to the new Flash show in 2014. Here, Shipp played Barry Allen's dad, Jay Garrick (the Golden Age Flash), and even cameoed as his own character, The Flash, in a crossover episode with Arrow and Supergirl
This show is fondly remembered by many older superhero fans and Flash fans. For fans of the newer Flash series, this might be a welcomed surprise. It's a fun watch with a lot of heart. Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) - Review and Analysis

Debuting in 1993, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was a television show that attempted to further the Superman legend by injecting romance into its super heroics. It ran for four seasons on ABC and followed the immediate Post-Crisis comic book continuity established by John Byrne et al. This was the first incarnation where Clark was the real identity and Superman was just a heroic persona.

Lois and Clark is a very entertaining show. The first season is the best, largely because of the dynamics between John Shea's Lex Luthor and Dean Cain's Superman. The plots of the show vary greatly. Action heavy stories give way to suspense. There's occasional cheesy comedy to balance out the romantic drama between the title characters, but it's the romance that really drives the show. The best episodes, for me, are when Superman's humanity is explored. The chemistry between Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain really draws you in and keeps you invested. The magic of the show really comes down to the cast.

Dean Cain is the best live-action Clark Kent ever. His Clark is the most fleshed out of any live-action version. Every time he is on screen he just exudes charm... Cain's Superman however, while very serviceable for a romantic adventure show, left a lot to be desired because there was very little to distinguish Cain's Superman from his Clark. For my money, the best Superman still is Christopher Reeve.

Teri Hatcher delivers the definitive portrayal of Lois Lane. She defines every one of Lois' traits perfectly... the tough, brash, no-nonsense reporter. She's also very charming and sexy. If any of the other Lois' compare to her, the one that springs to my mind is Dana Delaney from Superman: The Animated Series in the 90's. Teri just nails Lois Lane perfectly.

Lane Smith as Perry White is just a complete character. Lane's Perry is very likable, funny, charming, and a genuinely good person who cares about his reporters. He's got the Elvis obsession that comes from the modern Perry from the comics. While I like John Hamilton (from the 1950's Superman show) and Jackie Cooper (the Reeve movies) in their roles, they don't get the rounded character of Perry as much as Lane Smith does. To be fair though, Lane Smith had four seasons to develop Perry into a real character.

Then there's Jimmy Olsen... Michael Landes did a good job with what he was offered but didnt get enough time to shine. He was good in the role but had he been given more time to develop, he probably would have been great. When I think of Jimmy Olsen, it's Justin Whalin that I think of. Whalin gave us the Daily Planet photographer as I'd always wanted to see him... curious, mischievous, a modern teenager.

Eddie Jones and Kay Kalin were great as The Kents. They seemed like the kind of parents (or grandparents) that you'd wanna have... just two very genuine and caring people... not too bland and old fashioned either, which was nice; a modern update on Ma and Pa Kent.

And now we come to my favorite part of the show: John Shea. His Lex Luthor was absolutely the most vile character and the perfect Lex Luthor. Arrogant, charismatic,  narcissistic, and evil. His hatred for Superman is fiery. There were moments in that first season where he scared me. John Shea is the best Lex Luthor in live-action. He gave an absolutely stunning performance. No other Luthor compares in my mind, though Clancy Brown's Lex is the best animated version.

Tracy Scoggins as Cat Grant was interesting. Rather than giving fans the character from the books, they rewrote her as the office gossip. Tracy was great in the role, even if it was a different character. They axed her after the first season and she deserved better. They could have given her a credible exit, at the very least.

I also liked the character of Jack from Season 1 and would have preferred if he'd stuck around for the rest of the series. He was a cool addition to the cast.

Beyond the cast is the writing and production design. Lois and Clark features pretty conventional writing for a 1990's superhero TV series that turned into a romantic comedy/drama. The plots are fun and try to juggle human drama, light comedy, and comic book/sci-fi themes. Even if the budget doesn't always allow for the greatest effects work, the show holds up. I also think the production design was stellar. Dean Cain's Superman costume looked great on screen and every setting, from the Kent farm to the Daily Planet, even Luthor's penthouse, was spectacular. 

Lois and Clark is a charming show that leaves a romantic mark on the Superman mythos. It's dated by today's TV standards but is a fine addition to the Superman franchise. I personally find it more enjoyable than shows like Smallville and Superman and Lois because I'm not interested in a teenaged Clark or Superman with children. I'd recommend this show to any Superman fan or anyone who wants to see where Superman was at in the 1990's.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Popeye The Sailor Man!

Best known as a cartoon character from the 1930's and 40's and rebooted several times from the 1960's to today, Popeye was created in a newspaper comic strip by King Features Syndicate called Thimble Theatre, written and drawn by Elzie Segar.  The character would eventually grow so popular that he took over the strip and it was renamed in his honor.

The Popeye strip and cartoons showcase the adventures of a working class sailor named Popeye and his love interest, Olive Oyl (who was the main character in Thimble Theatre for ten years before Popeye debuted). The cast of characters is rounded out by the frequent antagonist, Bluto (later called Brutus when the cartoon was rebooted in the 1960's), the hamburger-loving, J. Wellington Wimpy, Geezil, the Cobbler, who made less frequent appearances, and the baby Swee'Pea (often pronounced Sweet Pea by the characters). 

Because of the popularity of the strip with readers, young and old, Popeye would get adapted into cartoons for both film and television. This started in 1933 with Fleischer Studios. Max Fleischer and Paramount Pictures saw such success with the Popeye cartoons that they ran until 1957. In the 1960's King Features Syndicate revived Popeye with a new series of cartoons.

The sailor's popularity expanded yet again into comic books, video games, advertisements for everything from spinach to candy cigarettes, and in 1980 was adapted for the screen in a live action film, starring Robin Williams.

The 1980 movie feels quite literally like an old Popeye cartoon in live action, though it has elements of the comic strip version of Popeye too. The performances are probably as faithful to the Popeye cartoons as is possible. Robin Williams translates the character to live action almost perfectly. The production design, sets, costumes and overall plot adapt the sailor and his world very effectively. It's a very entertaining film for its time and I enjoy it, but I have heard that some modern audiences criticize it for pacing.

One of the most frequent tropes of the Popeye cartoons is the love triangle between Popeye, Olive, and Bluto. Bluto serves as the rival to Popeye, who usually bests the large brute in a duel of wits and strength. While this provides a lot of humor to the stories, it separates the cartoons from the comic with a key difference: Bluto only appeared one time in the strip and the comic featured more complex plots than the simple love and rivalry of the cartoons. Also, in the comic strip, Popeye rarely ate spinach. The differences in the strip and cartoon have sometimes led to the perception that the strip was for all ages and the cartoon was more children's fare though it should be noted that in the 1930's and 40's people of all ages were entertained by cartoons.

The legacy of Popeye has been one of pure entertainment for young and old alike. The stories feature a character who is an odd mix of rough and tumble mariner, caring gentleman, and archetypal hero. Charles Schultz, of Peanuts fame, called Popeye "the perfect comic strip." In all media, in all his incarnations, the sailor's adventures offer a brilliant mix of adventure and humor with Popeye as the strongman archetype. In fact, Popeye was mentioned by Jerry Siegel as one of the early inspirations for Superman. Popeye has become so beloved that he continues to endure today, still published as a strip in several American newspapers, and new cartoons and animated movies still debut every few years.   

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

1990's Batman Animated Films: Mask of the Phantasm, SubZero, The Batman/Superman Movie - Review and Analysis

Batman was in a great place in the 1990's as far as animation goes. Mask of the Phantasm began as an idea from Alan Burnett, producer on Batman: The Animated Series. Burnett wanted to tell a Year One inspired story that explored how Bruce Wayne became Batman but also wanted a movie that told a new story. Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves were recruited to help write the film. Much of the main voice cast of the animated show returned to do voices: Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as The Joker, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth, Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, and Robert Costanzo  as Harvey Bullock were joined by veteran actors Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach Jr., Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller and John P. Ryan to fill out the cast. The movie was directed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski.

The story follows Batman as he reunites with his former love, the mysterious socialite, Andrea Beaumont, then faces a new vigilante, The Phantasm, who is murdering Gotham's mob bosses. The plot took partial inspiration from Mike W. Barr's Batman: Year Two and The Phantasm was based on the comics villain, The Reaper. The movie also took elements from the Batman: Year One storyline by Frank Miller.

After Phantasm was greenlit, WB had slated it for a direct-to-video release. When the film was completed  though, the executives were impressed enough with the animation and overall story that they decided it was worthy of a theatrical release. They then decided to convert its aspect ratio for theater screens. Dropping on December 25, 1993, it opened to a very small reception but got positive reviews from the few critics who did see it. The film earned praise for its stylized animation, voice performances, story, and music. Because of the film being dumped into theaters on such short notice, Mask of the Phantasm was a box office bomb. In fact, because it was such a sleeper, Siskel and Ebert dismissed it as, to quote Gene Siskel, "a kid's movie." They failed to review it but later came back and gave the film a glowing review (as seen below): 

After being released on VHS, this film finally found the success it deserved and has gained a legendary status among fans. And this is where I first saw it. I used to rent this once a month from the video store. In my estimation, it's one of the best Batman movies ever made. Sometimes, I even think that it beats the best live action films with its story and execution. Mask of the Phantasm is well remembered and continues to be loved by Batman fans, new and old.

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In 1997, around the time of the 4th Batman film, Batman and Robin, WB  filmed a tie-in movie called Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero. After the lack of critical success that the live action film brought, Subzero was halted and released in 1998 as a Special Television Event. My brother and I had seen it advertised for weeks and saw it when it debuted, recording it on a VHS tape.  The film was critically well received and, for obvious reasons, is regarded as far better than the live action film from around the same time. As a young kid, this was the movie that cemented my love for Barbara Gordon and Batgirl. 

The film used much of the same cast from the animated series to tell a story where Mr. Freeze recruits an old colleague, Dr. Gregory Belson, to perform a blood transfusion to heal and revive his beloved wife, Nora. The plot comes in when the only compatible donor happens to be Barbara Gordon. Freeze kidnaps Barbara and takes her to an abandoned oil rig in the middle of the ocean. Barbara uses her wits to survive and Batman and Robin fly out in the Batwing to rescue her. 

The film was critically well received, though I personally have seen it criticized online by a few fans who think the movie is too short and the story too simple. It certainly always entertained me and I think it works as a perfect extension of the show it's based on. Its runtime is just over an hour but I think it tells a better story and is more faithful to what Batman (and Mr. Freeze) represents than what Schumacher gave us in 1997.

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On October 4, 1997, 3 episodes from the second season of Superman: The Animated Series, debuted back-to-back as a special TV-movie event. These episodes depicted the first meeting between Batman and Superman in the DC Animated Universe (DCAU). As far as episodes go, they were some of the best of the Superman show and told an engaging story.

Joker meets Lex Luthor in Metropolis with an offer to kill Superman using a kryptonite dragon statue. Batman and Superman must team up to bring down the scheme of their arch villains. Sure, the plot is simple Saturday morning fare but the writing elevates it to something special. 

 In 2002, WB dumped these episodes onto DVD as The Batman/Superman Movie: World's Finest! Is it bad that I enjoy this more as a pairing of my 2 favorite DC heroes than the live action DC Extended Universe films? I'm apparently not the only one... several other fans have told me that they feel this is more entertaining than Zack Snyder's work and that this is a truer representation of Batman and Superman, even if it is a simple cartoon. To each their own, I guess. I still think these 3 episodes are great and have loved them since I was a kid. 


*If you haven't watched these in a while, I recommend you see them again because I just saw them for the first time in a few years and they are really fun and quite engrossing. Bruce Timm and co. really knew how to make good superhero entertainment.  

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Batman Runs by Grant/Breyfogle!


Starting in 1987, with Detective Comics issue #583, DC Comics unleashed one of the greatest creative team's to ever work on Batman! Alan Grant (with an assist by John Wagner on the first few tales) wrote some of the most memorable stories of the Post-Crisis era, precisely because they chose not to use many of Batman's main villains. They created new ones. And while it's debatable whether or not some of these villains are well-remembered today (Scarface/The Ventriloquist became a classic rogue), they were featured in some truly great stories, especially for the time they were published. Norm Breyfogle's art was unlike anything seen before. It was polished, detailed, and moody, yet at times expressionistic, cartoony and exaggerated.


The new creative team proved successful, only eventually, because the Bat-books at the time were suffering from lagging sales. But to make the indelible mark that they did on Detective Comics was no mean feat, considering they had to follow the excellent work of writer Mike W. Barr et al. 


What's so memorable about Grant and Breyfogle's run on Detective? New villains, The Ratcatcher, Cornelius Stirk, The Corrosive Man, Anarky, and the memorable Mudpack storyline (in which all the Clayface's were lead by Basil Karlo in an attempt to create one ultimate Clayface) were backed with other strange, pulpy plots. These tales combined with Breyfogle's unique and gorgeous art delivered something truly special to readers. They eventually did get to play with the standard rogues, The Joker, Catwoman, and The Penguin in some pretty fun stories also, resurrecting's Joker from his final appearance in the Death in the Family story. The run was a street-level, gritty, and at times socially conscious take on Batman's world. It remains a dark, sophisticated collection of stories that has a cultish appeal, and it's this run in particular that stands as one of the greatest runs of Batman comics ever. This Detective Comics run was presented in #583 – 597, #601 – 621 (1987 – 1990). 


From there, in 1990, the Grant/Breyfogle team moved to the Batman title. This run was more concerned with following and building on the established continuity of the period, something that Alan Grant regretted at the time. While this run did use more of the classic rogues like The Scarecrow, Catwoman, Maxi Zeus, and Killer Croc, the work was focused on helping to develop and establish Tim Drake as the new Robin and a plot in which Commissioner Gordon suffered a heart attack. Vicki Vale's role in Bruce's life was expanded upon and Sarah Essen was also further developed. It was the development of Tim and his backstory that ultimately makes this a memorable run of Batman books. This run went from #455 – 466, 470 – 472, 475 – 476, 479 – 480 (1990 – 1992). 

Breyfogle departed after Batman #480 and that was when the team produced what is perhaps their best work. They launched a new title, Shadow of the Bat. The first four-issue arc, The Last Arkham, featured a plot with Batman being put into Arkham Asylum and the creation of the now classic villain, Mr. Zsasz. 

Both runs certainly left their mark on Batman's history, but it's the Detective Comics run that remains a bright spot in the Batman canon. Alan Grant will forever be remembered for his wild, original plots and Norm Breyfogle's pencils remains some of the best artwork to ever grace The Dark Knight. These are must read Batman stories that I grew up hearing about, as a kid in the 90's, but never read in full until very recently. These comics remain personal favorites of mine and I highly recommend them.

**Note: Norm Breyfogle suffered a stroke in 2014 and passed away in 2018 due to heart failure. He was 58. Gone too soon, a true Legend of the Dark Knight! Rest in peace, Mr. Breyfogle, you were one of the greats!

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Neo-Noir of Mister X and the Radiant City Trilogy


Published by little-known (and now defunct) Canadian publisher, Vortex Comics, Mr. X was a wild idea. Bringing together the neo-noir/science fiction of films like, Blade Runner, with the pulp magazine sensibilities of the 1930's and 40's, it manages to weave together an intriguing mystery.

Written by Dean Motter with art by such luminaries as The Hernandez Brothers and Seth, Mister X tells the story of a mysterious character, a bald architect wearing dark glasses and a trench coat, haunting the streets and secret passageways of Radiant City, trying to piece together why Radiant City's architecture is driving its citizens mad. Mister X claims it is his job to fix things. He is a drug-fueled, paranoid, insomniac architect, obsessed with finding a cure for its people while going up against the city's corrupt officials.

But why him? Who is Mister X? The series doesn't really reveal his true identity until the end as the majority of the story is spent figuring out his motivations and tries to deliver clues to the mystery.


L
ike independent projects such as The Rocketeer, Nexus, Love and Rockets, and other classics of the 1980's, Mister X  is well remembered by fans of that era. When Mister X hit the comic book stands in 1984, it was truly a unique and inspiring vision. The story, artwork and interesting coloring choice was part film noir and part German expressionism, in the vein of the classic film, Metropolis. This book is just as good as the biggies of the 1980's: Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, albeit not nearly as important. Mister X captivated comics fans and creators alike, but sadly, may not be known to present day comics fans. This is Dean Motter's best work. It can be held up as one of the comic medium's best stories ever told, in my opinion, though fans new to the medium or those acustomed only to modern comics may not appreciate it as much. Still, it's quite disturbing, violent, visceral and enthralling all at once. Amazing!


If you wanna check this out, it has been collected by Dark Horse Comics in an archived edition. Definitely a must read for any fan of pulp/sci-fi comics and worth collecting for fans of offbeat 80's comics. 



Sometime after the Mr. X series was published, Dean Motter published 2 unofficial sequels. Terminal City (released sporadically in the middle 1990's) and Electropolis (which was released in the 2000's). While this is considered by Motter fans to be a trilogy, the stories aren't really connected. The latter books are at least peripherally related to Mr. X and Radiant City as they take place in the same universe, but don't really further the story of Mr. X. 

Terminal City is a bright spot in the overly grim, overly drawn, event-driven comics of the 1990’s. This work is such a breath of fresh air, an alternative to superhero comics of the time. Terminal City is the purest vision of Dean Motter’s retro-futurism. This series melds Bruce Timm’s Gotham City and Asimov style sci-fi into a loose story about aging daredevils and a mysterious briefcase. This is a world where old art deco buildings clash with futuristic ones, where robots and flying cars mesh with old time gangsters and where gorgeous femme fatales try their damnedest to take advantage of unsuspecting men. The plot is kind of zany, involving a crooked mayor, a crooked industrialist, land schemes, missing and legendary crown jewels, a naive newcomer to town, and an old boxer. The hero is Cosmo Quinn, former "Human Fly" daredevil turned window washer, but the Grand Hotel-like plot jumps between multiple stories and characters. Readers will catch references and homages to old noir films, Abbott and Costello, and even Tintin. The art by Michael Lark is straightforward and easy to look at, while the colors and vivid and expressive. This is recommended if you like noir-ish shadows melding  with technology in a way that the cyber-punk genre may have attempted but never fully succeeded in delivering the way this does.

The later story, Electropolis, features Menlo Park, a reprogrammed janitor robot working as a private detective on the neon streets of Electra City, a sister-town of Radiant City, that's been designed to generate and conduct massive amounts of electricity. Sixteen years after the apparent suicide of his human partner atop the world's tallest tower, a blond femme fatale gives Menlo some new information about the cause of death. As Menlo and his assistant, Anesta, reopen the case, their journey takes them from Electra's high society to its dark underbelly. Of these 3 stories, it is the weakest, if only by default because the other 2 are so good. Of the 3 however, this feels the most straight forward and is more like an old film-noir plot than anything else. Motter handles the art chores here and  delivers some great panels. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Frank Robbins Deserves Credit For Helping Create "The Dark Knight"

Frank Robbins is the only writer in Batman's history that has the distinction of being THE transitional Batman writer. Having taken over from Gardner Fox, Robbins worked on:
Batman #204–207, 209–212, 214–217, 219–222, 226, 230–231, 236, 246, 249–250, 252, 254 (as writer from 1968–1974) and Detective Comics #378–383, 386, 388–436 (as writer); #416, 420–421, 426, 429, 435 (as writer/artist from 1968–1973).

Batman fans often hear about how Denny O'neil and Neal Adams changed the character from the campy Caped Crusader into The Dark Knight. This is true, but it's a partial truth. Frank Robbins was writing and drawing Batman before Denny and Neal and it was his work that first brought maturity to Batman. He also wrote both flavors of Batman, campy and dark. As much as I love Denny O'neil, who I consider to be in the top 5 comic book writers of all-time, he and Neal (perhaps DC's greatest artist of all-time) cannot take, nor do they deserve, all the credit, despite what most popular blogs like IGN or CBR might have you believe.

Robbins' Batman stories started out in the same vein as Gardner Fox. They were simple, juvenile detective and mystery stories. About halfway through his run, he created Man-Bat with Neal Adams, and started the shift that marked the beginning of the transition from The Caped Crusader into The Dark Knight. In fact, Batman's appearance first changed, under the pencil of Neal Adams, in one of Robbins' stories.
He also wrote Batman #217 where Dick Grayson moves off to college and this forces Bruce to return to his roots, becoming, once again, the lone obsessed vigilante. Robbins also penned The Batman Nobody Knows, a short story from Batman #250. With art from Dick Giordano, this serves to illustrate that the Batman is a legend who is frightening to criminals. One of Batman's greatest stories, it was loosely adapted for both The New Batman Adventures episode, Legends of the Dark Knight, and as one of the shorts in the Batman Gotham Knight animated anthology film from 2008.
As much as Denny O'neil deserves credit for The Secret of the Waiting Graves (Detective Comics #395), which cemented the change in both focus and tone, without Frank Robbins to lay the stepping stones Julius Schwartz may never have hired Denny to write it. The record has to be set straight... Denny and Neal had a little help in creating The Dark Knight version of Batman. It was a recipe with many cooks, including other artists such as Irv Novick, and Jim Aparo. Robbins gets ignored by history just as, sometimes, Denny and Neal get casually ignored for bringing Batman back to his darker roots in favor of Frank Miller's 1980's work. But Frank Robbins is important to Batman too.