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.

--------------------------------------

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.

--------------------------------------

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 a new, 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 The Batman Nobody Knows, which is a short story from Batman #250. Written by Frank Robbins, with art from Dick Giordano, this serves as one of Batman's greatest stories, 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 that 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. Let's give this man his due!

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Superman Smashes The Klan! - A Comic Review and Analysis of Superman Vs Hate Groups


Superman Smashes the Klan! And he's been doing so for about 75 years. The Man of Steel first encountered the KKK in his very own radio show in the 1940's. It seems that every generation or so, DC Comics publishes a story dedicated to Superman fighting either the Ku Klux Klan directly or some group that was indirectly inspired by what the Klan represents. In that way, Superman has never completely lost that sense of truth and justice that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave to their character. He has always remained something of a social crusader.


It began in 1946. The Anti Defamation League had infiltrated the KKK. The ADL contacted the Superman radio show and suggested that they feature a story where the titular hero faces the Klan. Over 16 episodes, from June to July of '46, "Clan of the Fiery Cross" aired and Superman took his war to the fascist menace.   


And as for the comic? Well, this story is a new take on the saga that is the "Clan of the Fiery Cross." In the 3-part miniseries, written by Gene Luen Yang with art by Gurihiru, Superman is in his younger days. He helps an immigrant family, battles racists, and finds himself grappling with life as an alien outsider. Like the radio show from which it drew inspiration, the story takes place in 1946.

The story is brisk and the art is cartoony. This one feels very inspired by the Golden Age of Comic Books. It's also very topical, considering the times we live in. What I like most about this story is that it squarely defines the KKK and their sympathizers as the enemy. Superman has some of that hutzpah, here, that he had in his earliest days. The Champion of the Oppressed has returned and... if there was ever a time for him... the time is now! Thanks, Superman, for fighting fascism and taking it to these bad guys! I recommend this for all ages as a way to get little ones engaged in the causes of social justice!

Thursday, March 25, 2021

In Defense of Joel Schumacher's Batman!


It's important to remember that Joel Schumacher, by his own admission, was a Batman fan. Had he had his way, he might have adapted the seminal comic book story, Batman: Year One. Alas, that's not what was made. For what he delivered in 1995, Batman Forever is not a bad film, and looks incredible. It's the most comic book looking version of Gotham City with its fascistic architecture, neon lights and colorful alleyways. There's a darkness to the city that looks more like something out of a mid-1990's music video on MTV than the dirty, mysterious, expressionistic metropolis that Burton gave us in 1989. So, yes! Gotham looks like the Gotham that was appearing in the comics of the mid to late 90's: colorful, overblown, and big. The other sets all feel very much like Batman to me, and the Batman Forever batmobile was my favorite as a kid (since I was teen however, I lean hard to the 89 Burton-mobile).

The costumes were quite good for their time as well. The batsuit known as the "Panther suit" was a sleek and sexy update from the first Keaton suit. But then rubber nipples were added. They make no sense, are garish, homo-erotic and unnecessary. They add nothing to the film at all... except unintentional humor. "Tee-hee, Hee-hee! Look at those nips, oh my god!" My point is, the Panther suit, sans the nipples, was quite good. Robin's costume is the closest to the Neal Adams Tim Drake design that we are likely to ever see in a major Hollywood production... again, it looks great, sans the nipples. The "Sonar" suit was reminiscent of many of Batman's alternate costumes over the years in the comics. The villain costumes are also excellent. As far as aesthetically, they are striking, pretty accurate to the source material and fit the overall look of the film... even if the Two-Face makeup could have been redesigned to look more realistic.

The acting is quite over the top, at least in the cases of the villains and, if the script had been less ham-fisted, more thoughtful in its approach and played with more drama, the overall film would have been much better. The problem comes in the fact that the movie is incapable of juggling its tones. It wants to be serious and dramatic but is also far too campy and loud. Where I think the film shines is in its drama. I think Kilmer was an excellent Batman and a thoughtful, charming Bruce Wayne. His performance shows that he understands Batman. Chris O'Donnell was as good as the script called for. I believed him as Robin and bought his trauma. Overall, I enjoy the film and think if Jim Carrey and T.L. Jones (both very capable actors) had the opportunity for more serious performances, had the drama outpaced the humor, this film would be highly regarded today. This film had potential.

Batman and Robin is an entirely different animal. Rather than dissect it completely, all I can offer is what I like about it and, perhaps offer some suggestions to what might have improved it. I think, like its predecessor, the film is great looking. The cinematography is tight and it feels like a dark comic book movie in places. Most of the film is a fever dream, an acid trip. This comes down to a bad script. Mostly.

George Clooney's sincerity as Bruce Wayne proves that he could have been a better Batman than he was. I'm not sure that his acting range would have allowed for a "Dark Knight" type of grim avenger, but with a better script, and a better suit, he could have done better. Chris O'Donnell's performance feels phoned in, but it's consistent with his portrayal of Dick Grayson in the previous movie. I always liked the Nightwing inspired costume too. Barbara, as played by Alicia Silverstone is wrong. But, I'm a fan of Babs Gordon in the comics. Sometimes, I feel like if she dyed her hair red and had given a less wooden performance, she could have been great... that is, IF she had been Jim Gordon's daughter. Then again, I'm not sure if she is a good enough actress to tackle the brainy, determined Commissioner's daughter from the comics. The villains were great looking, but the acting was bad. Uma Thurman looked like Ivy but her performance was dreadful... she's a better actress than what the script called for. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Freeze, again, he looked the part and his suit was awesome. The performance however, and the numerous sight gags and ice puns, were not what a Batman film needed. Bane, well, it wasn't the character from Knightall. He wasn't cunning or strategic, just more of a hulking brute.

I think Schumacher is a great director who was gifted with talented actors. The studio, the screen writer (Akiva Goldsman), and the insistence to tone down these films into pop-oriented summer entertainment was their downfall. I like Batman Forever and I think it deserves a better legacy. Batman and Robin has some amazing looking scenes and shots. Aesthetically, it's not bad at all. Even the plot is decent. But too many one-liners, too much camp and the over-the-top nature of the film make this one of the worst films of all time. Had the stars aligned, had Schumacher been given more control and a better script, Batman and Robin would not be a bad movie. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Spawn: The Poster Child of 1990's Darkness!

Spawn, created by Todd McFarlane, was THE comic book character that ushered in the 1990's Dark Age of Comics. He has his antecedents and the precedent for characters like him were set by the culture of the late 80's. Not only was Spawn (and characters like him) brought about because of the sophistication and mature themes of comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, but also popular rock music of the time and the youth-centered culture of MTV.

Debuting in May of 1992, Spawn #1 sold 1.7 million copies and, for a long time, was the biggest selling indie-comic of all time. The book tells the story of Al Simmons, a mercenary that works for the U.S. Security Group, a government agency commanded by Director Jason Wynn. When Wynn sets him up, he is killed and goes to Hell. Making a deal with the demon, Malebolgia, Simmons agrees to become a Hellspawn and lead Hell's army if he is allowed to see his wife, Wanda, one last time. Simmons returns to the living realm, badly burned and under supervision of Violator, a demon disguised as a clown. After his death and subsequent rebirth, Simmons is now Spawn, a powerful Hellspawn who is thrust into several adventures where he takes down street gangs and organized crime in the city of New York.

I was about 7 years old when Spawn debuted and completely missed out. I was most intrigued by the action figure line of the the mid to late 1990's. By that time, McFarlane Toys was a powerhouse in the toy industry and Spawn figures were everywhere. The character always intrigued me for his darkness and edginess. His storyline was always very intriguing, but I would not read the comics until I was much older.
I did catch the 3-season Spawn animated series that debuted in 1997 on HBO at various times as a kid. It seemed so adult, mature and sophisticated at the time that I was instantly a fan. It was very adult and made for mature audiences but was not very sophisticated. The animation is very well done by 90's standards but the story can be very deliberately paced. I still enjoy it when I see it these days, though I recommend watching it in one 6 hour block. It unfolds very well if you watch it in one sitting and tells a compelling story. If you watch it over time, it is not as easy to digest.

Also in 1997, the Spawn movie was released in theaters. I watched it for the first time in the late 1990's and thought it was well done. It's a basic origin story with a decent plot. Even with it's bad CGI and mediocre special effects, by today's standards, it's an entertaining, dark actioner. There are some corny bits but, if you're a comic book fan, it can be enjoyable. It does routinely get thrown on the "Worst Comic Book Movies of All Time" list. I disagree. It's fairly well done for a 90's action film and is a decent adaptation of the early Spawn book. I think at the very least, if you're a Spawn fan, you should get something out of it.

There are some comic book readers, veterans of the hobby, who dismiss Spawn as a product of the 90's, an edgy, overblown summation of the comic book Dark Age. For many, he belongs in the 90's and is not very compelling. I disagree. For those who have only heard about Spawn, or are vaguely aware of him, I would recommend watching the animated show. If you want to read the comics, start at the beginning with issue #1 and read until about issue 50, at least. If you still like it, keep going. The comic is quite well done, especially the early issues, some of which were written by Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. That said, as with any back issue comic book, it can be dated. But what do you think? Do you like Spawn? Is he a cool concept or, does he amount to nothing more than the ultimate edgy, dark antihero?


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Galactic Guardians Presents: The Fear

I have been spending a lot of time lately watching various episodes of Batman: the Animated Series. The show is, of course, so good that it got me thinking about Batman's history in cartoons. Batman debuted in cartoons during the 1960's thanks to the now infamous company, Filmation, as part of the Batman/Superman HourThe Batman bits of that show eventually got repackaged as The Adventures of Batman. This of course led to the better known ABC broadcast, Super Friends, in 1973 that lasted until 1985. Batman had a starring role in the Super Friends series, which was animated by Hanna-Barbera. A short-lived cartoon ran concurrently with that called The New Adventures of Batman


The
final season of Super Friends got rebranded for ten episodes as The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. Pre-BTAS, this is the most serious that superhero shows ever really got. Which brings us to The Fear!    

This screenshot from The Fear shows the first ever "dark" Batman in animation.

The Fear
is the first time ever, outside of comics, that Batman ever got dark. Of course, it wasn't as dark or sophisticated as anything that Bruce Timm and Co. would give us in the 90's but, for 1985, this was well done. They couldn't really do anything beyond the level of  cartoons for 8-year-olds because Standards and Practices in children's animation back then was far more conservative. The Fear raised the bar for superhero cartoons and is probably the best DC superhero cartoon made before the 1990's.

Here, Batman is terrified of Crime Alley, the place where his parents were murdered. The Dynamic Duo chases Scarecrow and his Strawmen (because, what else would you call Scarecrow's henchmen, LOL) towards Crime Alley but once Batman realizes where he is, he freezes. Scarecrow gets away and Batman and Robin spend the rest of the episode dealing with his trauma and the Scarecrow tries to exploit his fear. At a party at Wayne Manor, Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) shows up and notices Bruce is not his usual self. At the end, the rest of the Super Friends show up and help Batman work out his trauma so that he and the Boy Wonder can stop Scarecrow's scheme. 

This is 21 minutes of superhero storytelling that rivals some of the darker toons that came later. Granted, this is still a kid's cartoon, and, when watched today might seem simplistic, but it's still important. It's the first time in animation where Batman is more than one dimensional and his humanity is explored. The episode is a gem in a series of otherwise saccharine and campy cartoons. Alan Burnett, producer of BTAS and other shows in the more modern DC Animated Universe also wrote this episode. He was one of the main writers on the Super Friends show. 

Because of the Super Friends legacy, the history of Batman in animation is really pretty weak until BTAS. That said, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians is a fairly watchable, and sometimes entertaining show. The Fear remains its best episode and is a neat little artifact for fans, new and old, to discover. Anyway, I just discovered it and for those who have never heard of this episode, I highly recommend it for all Bat-fans!

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Blacksad: Noir Animals In a Complicated World


Blacksad
 is a series of wonderful noir comics that combines some of my favorite elements: detective fiction, anthropmorphized characters and period pieces. The comic is the brain child of the Spanish writer/artist team, Juan de Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido. These guys are former animators who, at one point, apparently worked for Disney. Their love of film noir and detective stories spawned one of the greatest comics in years. These were originally published in French but have been translated to Spanish and English.

John Blacksad is a cat in a world inhabited by animals. He works as a private detective in New York City during the 1950's. His stories feature themes that were true to life in the 50's as well: racism, atomic age paranoia, and post-war economics. The series is dressed with jazz music, gangsters, booze and dangerous women as well, to better illustrate the noirish flavor of this amazing  series.

Blacksad begins with the story Somewhere Within the Shadows. Debuting in 2000, this is where we meet John Blacksad, a hard drinking "Private Eye" in the vain of Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade. He investigates the murder of a famous actress. The artwork is expressive, detailed, and perfectly captures the mood of a pulp detective story. It's probably my favorite story in this series.

Artic Nation, the second book in the series, came out in 2003. This one features some heavier subject matter. Blacksad searches for a missing girl named Kaylie. She has been kidnapped by a racist political organization called Arctic Nation. Their members are various animals, all with white fur, to draw allusions to the KKK and white supremacy. Another gang called the Black Claws generate themes of interracial conflict as well. Blacksad's struggle to find the missing girl is interspersed throughout these heavier themes.

The next in the series, Red Soul, was released in 2005. This features themes of America's two biggest fears during the era, nuclear annihilatioin and the communist "Red Scare." This story sees Blacksad mingling with all sorts of characters in the city's social scene to get to the bottom of a mystery. It's not as heady as the previous story but it's still very intriguing.


Dark Horse Comics would later publish these first three stories as a single volume in 2010, simply titled Blacksad, and translated into English


Book four,
A Silent Hell,
 also appeared in 2010. This story, set in New Orléans, features Blacksad and his pal Weekly (a reporter who's also a weasel) traveling there to meet Faust (a goat who's also a failed musician). The goat has a terminal illness, and is treated by voodoo high priestess. Faust commisions Blacksad to find an old friend of his. This story was a lot of fun and the artwork captures vintage New Orleans very well. 


The final tale (so far) is called
Amarillo
Amarillo is Spanish for "yellow." Released in 2014, this one concerns two beatnik types: a lion named Chad, and his hotheaded bison friend, Abraham. Blacksad is still in New Orleans on holiday but Weekly goes back to New York. This is one of those stories where the adventure finds the protagonist. Blacksad just kind of falls into the plot. Our hero is approached by a wealthy Texan (a steer) to drive a vintage yellow car  on a cross country road trip from New Orleans to Amarillo, TX to Denver, CO, and finally to Memphis TN, where we meet Blacksad's sister. The whole thing culminates in a murder that has to be solved. And what does 
Luanne, a Siamese cat with psychic powers and a knife-throwing boyfriend, have to do with this? It's another very good story that has all the trappings of a great pulp-inspired adventure, though it seems brighter than the other stories, in both tone and artwork.

All in all, the Blacksad stories are probably the greatest pulp detective stories in modern comicdom. The artwork is reminiscent of storyboards for a Disney film and the writing is as sophisticated as any pulp novel. Rumor has it, there are supposed to be more stories on the way but they have yet to be published. This series is truly unique and highly recommended for anyone who loves comics.


Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Wrath of The Spectre!

In the 1970's, DC Comics resurrected one of their darkest and most powerful characters, The Spectre. In the 1940's Jim Corrigan (as created by Jerry Siegel and artist Bernie Baily) emerged as one of DC's first detective/superhero characters. His stories were dark even for the Golden Agee, a time when comics were less censored and unafraid of telling edgy stories. In the 1970's he was brought back in this series, masterfully written by Michael Fleischer and drawn by Jim Aparo. These stories were groundbreaking in that they were considered very violent for the time. This series established The Spectre as one of the darkest and probably the most vengeful of all superheroes.
Beginning with the 12-page "The Wrath of ... the Spectre" in issue #431 of Adventure Comics, writer Michael Fleisher, and artist Jim Aparo produced 10 stories through issue #440 that became controversial for what was considered gruesome, albeit bloodless, violence. Joe Orlando plotted these stories with writer Michael Fleisher, and they emphasized the gruesome fates of criminals who ran afoul of the Spectre. The Comics Code had recently been liberalized, but this series pushed its restrictions to the limit, often by turning evildoers into inanimate objects and then thoroughly demolishing them. Jim Aparo's art showed criminals being transformed into everything from broken glass to melting candles, but Fleisher was quick to point out that many of his most bizarre plot devices were lifted from stories published decades earlier in various Golden Age comics.

This series made me an instant fan of The Spectre and I became someone who sought out the work of Michael Fleischer (his 1970's Jonah Hex run needs to be read by all). And then, of course, there's the art by Jim Aparo. Anything with Jim Aparo's immortal name attached to it is instantly going to be good. Anyway, this series was printed in trade paperback in 2005 and went quickly out of print. DC just released an omnibus of this run (with some supplemental material), so it's available again. If you're a fan of darker heroes, like horror comics or ghost characters, you should definitely check out this run.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) - Review and Analysis


Many of my followers have been waiting on my thoughts on this beloved trilogy. So, here we go!

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy that ran from 2005 to 2012 is a master class in dramatic storytelling. These films tell stories of dark, noir-ish, urban crime that are filtered through the lens of the DC Comics character, Batman, in a Post 9/11 world. While these are well-crafted crime dramas they may suffer as Batman movies, depending on one's perspective or preference, due to a hard re-imagining of character and mythos as well as an emphasis on realism. The goal of this series is to place Batman in a less heightened reality, which limits what villains can be used. As a result Gotham City is recast as Chicago with gothic elements, and plot and character motivations are explained to us through dialogue so that we can understand specific intent.



The series starts with Batman Begins, released in 2005. In my opinion, this is the best film in this series, and this is the only exception to the idea (proposed by more than a few fans) that these are not really Batman movies. As the title suggests, this movie focuses on the origin of Batman and to date is the best-adapted origin story of a major comic book character since Superman: The Movie in 1978. This is because the film draws heavily from the popular origin story, Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller, which ran in Batman #404 to #407. The reason this works as a Batman movie is because it mirrors the Year One storyline, which was a grounded and more realistic take on the origin of the character. The other storylines that are drawn from include The Demon Saga from the 1970s, which introduces Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Assassins (here called League of Shadows), as well as The Man Who Falls, both written by Denny O’Neil. Blind Justice, Batman’s 50th anniversary story from 1989, written by Batman screenwriter, Sam Hamm, is where the character of Henry Ducard originated.


The middle part of the trilogy, The Dark Knight, released in 2008, continues the theme of realism in a crime drama setting. This is where the series ceases to be less about adapting Batman and begins to tell its own story featuring supporting characters of the Batman mythos. Sure, characters from the comics appear, and the portrayal of the Joker character by Heath Ledger is phenomenal, but the heightened comic book world is abandoned in favor of a Law and Order style approach. Unfortunately, Ledger’s Joker portrayal is so defining that it steals the show and places the Harvey Dent/Two-Face character, as well as Bruce Wayne’s love triangle with the Rachael Dawes character, far in the background. Particularly brilliant is the fact that the Joker character comes straight out of Batman #1 from 1940. This is the only way that the filmmakers could produce a realistic Joker, though they seem to mistake Joker’s randomness and criminality with anarchy. The Joker should not ever be politically motivated and has nothing to do with left wing ideologies such as anarchism, both in this film or in the comics. It's also interesting to see the introduction of the batcycle, known here as the “Bat-pod”, in this movie. I also appreciated that The Long Halloween was referenced narratively in places as well. 


The third film, The Dark Knight Rises, from 2012 is the furthest departure of comic book Batman yet. We are introduced to the cat burglar/master thief version of Catwoman and loose adaptations of both the Bane character and Talia Al Ghul. Bane’s motivations are similar to Ra’s in the first film but he seems more bent on a genuine redemption for the oppressed than Ra’s ever was. In this film Bane is a terrorist, in line with Talia and her father and, while his motivations deserve sympathy, his actions are appropriately condemnable. The new version of the Batwing, known here as “The Bat”, is a nondescript aircraft, resembling neither plane nor bat. This film brings the story from the first film full circle and wraps up a rather uneven trilogy.

All in all these films are very well made, thought provoking and entertaining as crime stories. The casting of Bale was great for Bruce Wayne, though his Batman leaves something to be desired. His voice should have been closer to Michael Keaton’s gruff whisper than the throat-cancer version that was delivered. Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox was inspired casting, even if the character was slightly different from the source material. Gary Oldman delivers what is perhaps the definitive portrayal of James Gordon. Ledger’s Joker was great and is rightly deserving of all the praise he gets. The score, highlighted by an anthemic march by Hans Zimmer, fits this trilogy well though it will never compare to the operatic Batman theme by Danny Elfman.

Friday, December 4, 2020

A Retrospective of The World's Greatest Comics Magazine!


The very first issue of Fantastic Four in 1961 ushered in the "Marvel Age of Comics." It signaled more than just the beginning of a new comic book company, it meant a new way to write and draw stories. American comics up to that point had been very one dimensional and, thanks largely to the Comics Code of the 1950's, lacked any real depth. Before the F.F. readers were subjected to Lois Lane trying to figure out Superman's identity every issue or Batman and Robin going to the moon. Comics just weren't very challenging.

Enter Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to kick the comics industry in the pants. The story goes that Stan had grown tired of working in comics and was going to quit. His publisher, Martin Goodman, hearing about the success of the Justice League comic, a book about a team of superheroes from the rival, DC Comics, gave Stan a mandate to write one more story. Stan was disillusioned and, upon advice from his wife Joan, he wrote exactly the story he wanted. But who would draw it? Art duties fell to none other than Jack Kirby, the "King of Comics." In fact, it was the Fantastic Four (often abbreviated as the FF) that helped build his legend.

So, starting with issue #1, the "World's Greatest Comics Magazine" was born. And comics would never be the same. The Fantastic Four featured the first appearance of Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic), Susan Storm (The Invisible Girl.. later called The Invisible Woman), Johnny Storm (The Human Torch), and Ben Grimm (The Thing). It was a book with an edge, a gamechanger that is as important to comic book history as the first appearance of Superman. Stan and Jack lasted an astounding 103 issues on the title.  The 1970's stories were dominated by writers such as Roy Thomas and Len Wein. The highlight of the 1980's was a run by John Byrne. Over the years, as with any long-running serial narrative with numerous creative teams, it's had its ups and downs. My favorites tend to be classic FF stories but there are a few modern gems too.

With all this in mind, I present my favorite stories of The Fantastic Four.

"The Galactus Trilogy"
- FF #48-50... It's been called "the indisputable pinnacle of the so-called Silver Age of comic books" and fans have debated whether it's the greatest Marvel Comics story of all time. It features the coming of an eater of worlds known as Galactus. His herald, the Silver Surfer, debuts and ultimately turns on his master. As a result the Surfer is banished to Earth, having his "space-time powers" removed. The greatest FF epic of all time stands the test of time more than 50 years after its publication. A true masterpiece.

"This Man, This Monster" - FF #51... More than just an exploration of The Thing, this one-off story exemplifies how the best stories were written in the Silver Age. The story solidifies Ben Grimm's personality as he finally comes to terms with what happened to him on that first trip to space. An impostor version of The Thing, from the "anti-matter universe" helps Ben to realize  that Reed has always had the best intentions for those he cares about. Ben finally understands that being fated as The Thing is not so bad, as long as he has his family to lean on.  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby delivered a brilliant character piece about selflessness and heroism with this one, and it probably is the greatest single issue story of the FF ever.. 

"Terror in a Tiny Town" - FF #236... Perhaps the best story of the entire John Byrne run. The story sees the Fantastic Four revisit their origin, all while facing an evil plot of ol' Doc Doom. A terrific story by Byrne and one of the best drawn FF tales of all time. 

"A Small Loss" - FF #267... In this FF landmark, Sue suffers complications with her pregnancy due to the cosmic rays that gave her superpowers. Reed has gathered the world's foremost experts in radiation research to no avail. He then does the unthinkable and turns to Doctor Otto Octavius. Can the infamous Doctor Octopus help the Invisible Girl, or is his mind too unstable to be trusted? Read to find out. For FF fans, this is not to be missed. This Marvel classic, "A Small Loss," guest-stars Bruce Banner (the Hulk), Walter Langkowski (Sasquatch), and Michael Morbius (the Living Vampire), with a cameo by Spider-Man.

"The Overthrow of Doom" - FF #192-200... The tale begins after the FF have disbanded because Reed has lost his powers. The team go their separate ways and do their own thing until a plot in which Reed regains his powers and ultimately has to rescue his family from the clutches of Victor Von Doom takes over. It's an intriguing mix of genres that collects neatly into a cohesive whole. It is part mystery, political intrigue, contemplative soul-searching and redemptive drama with superhero action mixed in.

"Remembrance of Things Past" - Marvel Two-In-One #50... In the first ever Byrne FF story (before he was actually on the FF title), Reed has invented a cure for Ben Grimm. The trouble is that the cure will only work on Ben as he originally was. His appearance has been changing since he first transformed (a clever in-story reason for the varying art styles on The Thing). So, Ben decides to go back in time and cure himself when he originally transformed. He meets himself and the two Things battle it out. The modern Thing beats the original, more lumpy version and forces him to take the cure. When he gets back however, nothing has changed. Reed explains that you can't change the past. Instead, an alternate timeline was created and the original Thing, in that time, is now cured.  The Thing decides he's ok with his failure because Lumpy Thing made him realize that's he's evolved past the worst of the monster look. It's a very touching issue and is a must read.

"The Origin of Doctor Doom" - FF Annual #2... In my estimation this is the greatest supervillain story of the Silver Age. Doctor Doom is one of the greatest villains in the Marvel Universe, perhaps THE greatest! In this tale we learn all about Victor Von Doom's motivations and what twisted him into the arch-villain that he has become. It's a tragic tale but also, even by today's standards, an entertaining epic. 

Fantastic Four #1 (1961)... The one that started it all. This is the story that introduced the team and founded the Marvel Universe. Some have said that there is a naiveté to the writing and that the story is too simple and dated. By today's standards? Maybe. Remember though, this was written in 1961. It does so much though. It introduces our protagonists, takes them on an adventure, shows the origin of their powers and shows the formation of the team. As Stan Lee himself might say, 'Nuff Said!   

"The Wedding of the Fantastic Four" - FF Annual #3... Dr. Doom reads about the wedding of Reed and Sue in the Daily Press. He then decides to ruin their wedding by using his Emotion Charger to cause just about every super-villain in the marvel universe to attack the FF at their wedding. The Watcher intervenes and Reed uses his "Time Displaccer" to return all the baddies back to their immediate past. The wedding of Reed and Sue ensues and cameos from all over the Marvel Universe abound. Talk about the best possible hook book for new readers to Marvel because it gives appearances by every major character. And, it's a hell of an adventure too.


"A Blind Man Shall Lead Them"- FF #39... The pre-Frank Miller Daredevil, the swashbuckling crusader, comes to the aid of the Fantastic Four when a nuclear blast drains their powers. Doc Doom wastes no time in trying to destroy them but Reed has a plan. He whips up a gadget that mimics their powers and with the aid of Daredevil they can now battle their nemesis.
 
"The Battle of the Baxter Building" - FF #40... Part 2 of the Daredevil/FF Fight against Doom, who has now seized control of The Baxter Building, the headquarters of the FF. Reed uses Daredevil to distract Doom and then the FF step in and take him down. By the end, their powers return and with his plot foiled, Doom escapes. These two issues really showcase that the FF is an established team in the Marvel Universe and in cases like this, when they need a little extra help, they can lean on their friends to solve their problems. A great two-parter that stands as one of my personal favorite Silver Age stories. 

"Inside Out"
- FF Vol. 3 # 60... Mark Waid wrote an acclaimed run with artist, Mike Wieringo. This is probably the best single issue of the bunch. It's a one-and-done that recaps the origin of the FF while also illustrating why the team does what they do and why they're so... fantastic!

* A few full runs that I think are deserving of everyone's attention... Obviously Stan and Jack's run is A-1... the best! 2nd, check out John Byrne's run. Mark Waid is the best modern FF writer and his run with Mike Wieringo and Karl Kessel deserves a look. The 12-issue Fantastic Four saga by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch was also fun and, after that, Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four epic needs to be checked out too.