Happy 80th Birthday Batman – Why Do We Still Need You?

First, some context.

I got my PhD from the University of Technology Sydney in 2016. My thesis was 82,000-ish words about American popular culture during the United States government eras of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Batman was the main object of study: I talked about how many Batman stories – along with franchises like Star Trek and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – reflected political, social and cultural tensions that emerged following 9/11, and how these stories broke those tensions down to be digestible for audiences, to give them a space to reason with topics like international invasion, domestic terrorism, state security and civic responsibility.

My PhD, enabling my career as a teaching and research academic, was largely the result of the deep love I have for the Caped Crusader. As a kid, Batman: The Animated Series was almost always on the TV every Saturday morning (provided my younger brother hadn’t woken up early and hijacked it for Saturday Disney). Near the end of high school I blew my casual income on four cinema screenings of The Dark Knight, before using it as a case study for my HSC exams and, later, my Bachelor’s degree Honours thesis. I’ve read innumerable comics featuring Batman, including the main title, spin-offs and crossovers with others like Superman and the Justice League. Two years ago, I was even driven to my wedding in a Michael Keaton-era Batmobile; if you’ve never sped along the freeway in a rocket-boosted Batmobile as fellow drivers look on in shock while avoiding a ten-car pileup, you haven’t lived.

To sum the above, I love Batman as a character, as a symbol of empowerment, and as a lens for critiquing the real world. After Star Trek, he’s my favourite franchise of all time.

As the character turns 80, I’m wondering why we need him anymore.

Though it’s unlikely he will ever truly fade into obscurity, we’re still far removed from the days of Batman’s imperial phase as the dominant superhero, both in the zeitgeist and at the box office. Rather than largely relying on the Big Three of Batman, Superman and Spider-Man for the moviegoing public, superhero films are now replete with more diverse household names, like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. In comparison to those latter three, Batman’s last two live-action big screen gigs brought underwhelming box office returns and tepid (at best) critical reception, to the point where we’re not even sure who’s playing him right now. The comics, though telling a great story and still selling reliably under the stewardship of ace writer Tom King, lack a bit of the mass appeal that made them a hit back when Batman’s son dying was big news outside the comic’s fandom. Add to that the conclusion of the Arkham video games in 2015, and there are fewer and fewer places where the once-mighty Dark Knight is still visible, let alone virally popular.

Personally, I’d argue that part of the problem is Batman got a bit overexposed. Compare this year to his 75th anniversary in 2014: two years after the end of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, with Ben Affleck’s turn in the cowl on the horizon; a year out from the thrilling Arkham Knight video game; halfway through Scott Snyder’s beloved, award-winning comic book run. That’s to say nothing of Batman’s myriad appearances in The LEGO Movie (earning him his own spin-off film in 2017), the Son of Batman animated film and Beware the Batman animated series, the Injustice: Gods Among Us beat-em-up video game released the previous year in 2013, and more ongoing and guest appearances in comic books than is probably healthy for a septuagenarian superhero. Avoiding Batman’s omnipresence in 2014 seemed almost impossible. Today, he’s still here, nice and grim and growly, but maybe not quite as in-your-face about it.

Perhaps we’re a bit tired of that grimness. Without wishing to invoke the 21st Century equivalent of Godwin’s law by namechecking a certain world leader, we know the world is wearying and dark, politically, ecologically, socially. Though we still love our grimdark pop culture in the likes of Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, maybe we’re not as keen on that anymore when it comes to our superhero saviours, meant to elevate us and bring us hope for a bright tomorrow. We don’t want Henry Cavill wearing a murky, de-saturated outfit and brooding over killing his enemies – we want Superman, hanging out with Lois Lane and his superpowered son, all bright colours and over-the-trousers underpants. We’re no longer thrilled by the tense anxiety of the Joker’s victims deliberating on killing each other in The Dark Knight – we’re after Tom Hiddleston’s Loki making sardonic wisecracks while plotting to melodramatically betray everyone in Thor: Ragnarok. Throughout almost every medium in which he’s currently present, Batman hasn’t quite caught up to the rest of us yet.

Of course, we know superheroes never fully go out of style. The most famous cinematic superheroes of the 2010s all endured phases in their decades-long histories that could charitably be described as “wonky”, popularity-wise. Batman himself languished in the years following Adam West’s goofy 1960s TV rendition, weathering an embarrassing reputation as a child-friendly comedic curio until the twin guns of Neal Adams’ 1970s comic book run and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel in the 1980s brought the Bat back to the grim violence and brooding hypermasculinity for which he’s known. The story of Batman the character is one of continuous renewal, changing to suit the evolving tastes of an enormous, global audience.

That highlights one of the things that is fascinating about Batman: his ability to be a palimpsest, a renewable symbol who can reflect each time and place that makes him. True, he’s not a critical lens the same way that literal cultural embodiments like Captain America are (an example whose recent comic books prove that some timely real world critiques really require a much higher degree of nuance to pull off than most), but he’s still representative of his era in almost everything he stars in. He was a dashing, Zorro-inspired detective, delivering justice in Gotham at the dawn of the Second World War; a fun, hip, comedic goof in the anxious age of 1960s America; a hulking, thuggish brute who became the violent protector of a frightened Gotham in the years before and after the towers fell. Each era of Batman’s fictional life has been a kind of metamorphosis, demarcating almost Doctor Who-like separate iterations of the same man across film, television, video game and comic page. Perhaps part of the reason Batman’s lost some favour in 2019 is because he is going through a stage of that metamorphosis, evolving from his Dark Knight self of nihilism and exceptional justice, and into something new. A form we don’t quite know yet.

So to answer my initial question: yes, I believe we still need Batman. Personal sentiment aside – and make no mistake, I love Batman now far more than when I was watching him on Saturday mornings – I think it’ll be fascinating to see who he becomes as we edge in the 2020s, and to see the kind of world the next era of his life will embody. His 80th may not have been the raucous party that the three-quarter century mark was in 2014, but I know my grandparents were partial to quieter, contemplative affairs as they got older, too.

Happy Birthday, Batman. Here’s to what – and who – comes next.

Secret Empire

Please note there are a few spoilers in this review, but given that it’s for a story that ended months ago, I don’t feel bad about including them.

I’ve actually been in the process of kickstarting (not Kickstarting) a new occasional feature I want to write here. It’s called “The Rundown”, looking at notable superhero comic book runs by specific creative teams, analysing the good, the bad and the ugly of the Big Two. The first cab off the rank, until this week, was going to be Nick Spencer’s conflicted, controversial take on Captain America, which I actually ended up kind of enjoying.

I already did a preliminary look at his Captain America: Steve Rogers run by pulling apart the first issue, concluding that for all the kerfuffle surrounding Cap’s turn from hero to Hydra agent, the book wasn’t all that bad. Having read Spencer’s three volumes of Steve and five concurrent books on Captain America: Sam Wilson, I found that the former had lots of problems while the latter had lots of impact. Both stories did make me a little more confident going into Secret Empire, billed as the culmination of Spencer’s Cap run(s) and the Marvel mega-event for 2017. That confidence was needed, because every comics journo and their mums were tearing this thing to shreds.

Rightfully so.

Captain America is now a Hydra agent, and has been all along. Turns out that the history we’ve known for close to a century got it all wrong; every Cap story since 1940 was just the Allies manipulating the canon to make it seem that Steve Rogers, our eternal paragon of virtue, was always on the side of the angels. Wanting to set things right, Hydra have used their MacGuffin du jour, the Cosmic Cube, to rewrite history correctly, showing that Steve was a Hydra sympathiser from a young age. Now, at the height of his powers in modern-day America, Steve has assumed control of the entire United States with the intention of spreading the authoritarian control of Hydra to every corner of the map. The Avengers are split in half; the street-level heroes reside in a darkened New York under the fascist oppression of Hydra, whilst the cosmic-powered heroes are barred from Earth by a globe-spanning forcefield. Both sides need to work together to overcome Cap’s control and set things right.

There’s no nice way to put it – Secret Empire is a complete mess. It’s at once better and worse than my expectations, the manifestation of every best and worst impulse Spencer has had as a Cap writer, whilst also being a textbook example of the prosaic, predictable and (almost) utterly disposable work Marvel now calls an Event. That parenthetical “almost” is important, though, since Secret Empire – much like its predecessors Avengers vs. X-Men, Original Sin and Civil War II – would be entirely forgettable if not for the utter damage that Spencer’s work has already inflicted upon fans.

Despite what vocal minorities on the internet might spew, Captain America – like all good art – is inherently political. This feels like trying to explain to a child that water is wet and Tide Pods are not for eating, but it’s true. Of all the superhero books in circulation, Cap is easily the most recognisable as an inherently political character. So when he’s the central figure of a crossover where the good ol’ golden boy of the USA turns out to be corrupted and evil, things can’t not be politically charged.

Unfortunately, those politics are delivered and unpacked here with all the subtlety and nuance of a Godzilla rampage. Steve Rogers as a Hydra ruler is, arguably, meant to represent the Trump presidency and the rise of the alt-right. Sure, I get that. But whereas the ascendancy of Trump and his ilk comes with a lot of social, cultural and political baggage that enabled it, Cap’s control of the world basically boils down to, “Hydra was here all along and we’re evil so we’re going to take over now thank you bye”. There are no layers to any of the storytelling decisions made here, and the narrative makes no attempt to show Steve as the least bit understandable in his vile rhetoric. At least with Trump you can trace lines between him and his supporters to see the reasons why they like him and how they can validate him, even if those reasons are detestable. Steve Rogers is just evil because the plot says he has to be; while some interesting decisions were made about that in Spencer’s Steve Rogers series, nothing about that characterisation here comes across as anything other than a gimmick.

The result is a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be. At least in the past, Marvel crossover events were clear on their intentions: Avengers vs. X-Men was a dumb schoolyard fantasy brought horribly to life, while Infinity was both a climax to Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers runs and a sweet blockbuster throwing most of Marvel’s main cast into outer space to fight aliens. By contrast, Secret Empire can’t decide if it’s a mega-event superhero crossover of heroes vs. neo-Nazis, a thinly-written anti-fascist polemic, a comment on the Trump presidency, a marketing stunt designed to draw readers in, or just all of the above. The focus is scattered between these elements to an uneven degree, creating a book that is a mixed bag of politics and punchouts. There’s spectacle throughout, handled by an army of artists who do decent work but lack consistency, and the climax relies on a predictable deus ex machina that counters Marvel’s insistence that Hydra Cap is the real Steve Rogers. All of this is delivered alongside persistent, badly-written narration boxes that give Chris Claremont a run for his money in the field of over-explaining things.

Though their styles are at odds with one another, the artists here do as well as they can. The bulk of the main duties are helmed by Andrea Sorrentino, whose distinctive style – reminiscent of Jae Lee – brings an appropriately washed out, nasty look to the story’s early, despairing chapters. The rest is handled by Steve McNiven, himself no stranger to a Captain America story, Leinil Francis Yu, Jesus Saiz and Daniel Acuña, all of whom acquit themselves well. There are moments where the disparate styles manage to pull off great work on their own; McNiven’s vivid style, made whole by inker Jay Leisten and color artist Matthew Wilson, ably illustrates the bravura final clash between Hydra Cap and our heroes. Similarly, cover artist Mark Brooks delivers sterling work through a number of images which each deserve a framed place on your wall. Otherwise, there’s little cohesion with the artwork, giving the impression that the shifts were done out of editorial necessity rather than narrative decisions.

But at least the illustration comes out looking better than the scriptwork. In addition to those damnable narration boxes, there is little in the dialogue that doesn’t come across as immensely clunky. Given the sheer size of the book’s cast, many main characters lack their distinctive voices, used only for exposition delivery. Those who do get given focus are largely blunt and bland, lacking even the barest hint of Marvel’s now-trademark Joss Whedon snark. The most egregious case, besides our headlining villain, is Black Widow, who attempts to be a hard-nosed spymaster in teaching some of Marvel’s younger heroes how to fight a cold war – because the political allusions weren’t alreayd blatant enough – but largely comes off as an insensitive and needlessly callous bully. There’s also a lot of schmaltzy scripting about the need for hope in times of peril, which unfortunately ramps into overdrive as the story reaches its disappointment of a climax.

About the only time Spencer gets it right with the words is in the final issue, Secret Empire: Omega, an issue-long conversation between Hydra Cap and a spoilery character, intercut with scenes of the Marvel Universe rebuilding in the wake of Hydra’s demise. This, coupled with the decent work he did for his issue of the follow-up anthology series Generations, works better as a resolution to Spencer’s twin runs on Captain America than the entirety of Secret Empire. This is Spencer bidding adieu to the characters he’s spent nearly two years writing (or ruining, depending on who you ask), and it’s easily the most satisfying moment of the entire book. But as good as Omega is, it doesn’t save a story that is almost universally reviled.

I honestly can’t remember the last time a book was as hated as the works Spencer did for the Star-Spangled Man. If the internet’s reactions are anything to go by, Secret Empire seems like a culmination of that hatred, the apex of every bad narrative impulse that both Spencer and Marvel Comics have had for the past two years. Without question, the book has a lot of problems, many of them indefensible but most of them endemic to the problems of writing and marketing crossover events to begin with.

For my money, Secret Empire is both a failure of an ending to what could have been one of the most interesting Marvel experiments of their history, and yet another predictably disappointing superhero crossover comic. Even if you took the politics out of it – which would be like taking the blue out of the sky – it’s still a narrative trainwreck, not quite as offensive as I was led to believe it would be, but nowhere near the gold standard either.


STORY: 1.5/5



OVERALL: 5.5/15

BEST QUOTE: “I know some part of you might want to give up hope. But this is our moment. Our chance to turn things around. I know we’ve been divided. Torn apart. Broken – for so damn long – but now it’s time to assemble.” – Sam Wilson

Justice League vs. Suicide Squad

Let’s not mince words. The only reason Justice League vs. Suicide Squad (hereafter shortened to just JLVSS) exists is because there are prominent movies each bearing the title teams’ names; one of them released to financial success and critical panning, the other due in a few months and with all kinds of negative expectations. Having read the full book, I can’t consider JLVSS as anything other than a cash-grab crossover rather than a meaningful character piece. Much like the similarly ill-conceived Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, the book grabs attention from its title and offers nothing to back it up; succinctly, its ego writes cheques that its body can’t cash.

The story begins fairly rote, with morally dubious ARGUS chief Amanda Waller serving as the catalyst for a battle between the Suicide Squad and the Justice League. The former are carrying out a covert operation that the latter manage to curtail, leading to the title fight of the book. After the League are roundly defeated by the Squad – and the means of said defeat are bound to spark vigorous debate, even by comic book standards – Waller reveals that she engineered this battle to bring both teams together. It seems that the original Suicide Squad, long thought dead after a mission gone wrong, are making moves to take over the world. The only solution is for the titular teams to band together and save the day through teeth-clenched teamwork.

But once the first act concludes, JLVSS pulls something of a magic trick. What was already a bland, flavourless punch-up with the flimsiest of plots becomes something more horrific, when it transpires that the story has some franchise cross-pollination in mind. The book doesn’t just pair the League and Squad for some superheroics, but goes a step further by installing the likes of Lobo, Harley Quinn and Deadshot as Justice League members. No, not just interim partners in the battle against the original Squad, but full-fledged members of the team (installed by Batman, of all people).

There are seeds of interesting ideas within JLVSS‘s miasma of tangled nonsense. The notion of bad guys or less-than-heroes being allowed in premier teams is a concept which has, in the past, led to Venom being an Avenger and the New 52 having a JLA filled with League rejects (and Catwoman). But any invitation to explore the moral and ethical dimensions of turning villains into potential heroes is rejected, the book preferring instead to excise nuance and paint the team-up as a necessity (not to mention a publicity stunt for real world fans of both teams). Once the second act gets going, any character work is discarded while JLVSS proceeds to bludgeon the audience with faux political subtext, including uncomfortable allusions to impending war with North Korea – here rebranded as the fictional nation of “Jangsun” – and the installation of an American autocrat who deigns to protect the country through fear and authoritarian control. The latter is literally embodied in the book’s use of body-hopping supervillain Eclipso, who possesses most of the populace and turns them to rage and violence across the country. To say JLVSS prefers didacticism over subtlety is a gross understatement.

The problems are compounded by the book’s insistence on being bright and eye-catching for most of its page count. JLVSS employs an array of artists and colorists whose styles gel reasonably well with one another; for instance, I didn’t realise when we’d switched from Howard Porter’s pencils to Jason Fabok’s, then to Tony S. Daniel’s, then back again. That kind of flow is good for keeping the book visually consistent (where past examples, like the aforementioned AvX, are artistically erratic), but it dulls the respective impacts each visual team has by diluting their personal styles. The result is the art comes out looking quite generic, crippling the usually standout illustrators (like Fabok) whilst elevating those who are lacking (like Daniel). It’s also hard to take Eclipso’s possession seriously, given that his victims’ faces all resemble blue geodes.

A lone spot of interest in a book otherwise bereft of it is the one-shot story near the book’s midpoint, where Steve Trevor crosses a ravaged city to save his extended family from Eclipso’s control. The chapter reminded me of Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis tie-in issue Submit, though handled here with less finesse and far too much exposition. The best books in the DC Rebirth stable have acquitted themselves well when remembering the humanity of their characters, both super and standard; Steve’s story is the closest JLVSS comes to recognising that its characters have depth and a modicum of emotional complexity.

One could make an argument for the futility of analysing JLVSS with any kind of critical eye. The book is clearly going to break no boundaries or move any mountains. It’s not even the worst crossover in recent memory; that distinction goes to the ill-advised Night of the Monster Men Bat-family crossover. There is little deeper meaning to the text, no substance to be negotiated and no strong threads to pull upon. It’s a product of a corporate comic book culture which favours Debordian spectacle over meaningful impact and produces a lackluster crossover which would have been inoffensive if it weren’t for some truly awful scriptwork – predominantly from current Flash scribe Joshua Williamson – and an almost complete lack of stakes, body-hopping supervillain and American autocrat apocalypse notwithstanding.

The discerning reader could probably grasp that the book is dreck from the title alone, a dead giveaway that spectacle rather than substance lies within. Though the army of artists produce reasonably structured work, and some smaller character beats land well – including a few brief scenes which flesh out Arctic-themed supervillain Killer Frost – they’re not enough to save the story. Justice League vs. Suicide Squad is a hackneyed, cheap as chips reason to get a raft of popular characters to fight each other, eminently forgettable and wholly unsatisfying. In that regard, it’s a bit like the latter team’s film debut; time will tell if the former’s follows suit.



STORY: 1.5/5

ARTWORK: 3.5/5


OVERALL: 6.5/15

BEST DIALOGUE: [to Superman] “I remembered the first time I ever saw you… before I became Killer Frost. I was in Metropolis. You weren’t fighting anyone. You just flew over me. It was a real Metropolis moment. I was there for a symposium with a research group. A professor on the trip with us had just told me he didn’t think I had what it took to gain my PhD…that I’d never make it. I was about to call it quits and go home…but then I saw you…and I thought…if a man could fly, I could stay in college.” – Killer Frost

Star Wars: Vader Down

Before the Star Wars Expanded Universe underwent the Great Disney Purge of 2014, I didn’t check out the comics much. My wheelhouse was more the novels and games; not that some of the comics weren’t great, but a lot of them just felt superfluous and uninspired (which, admittedly, is rich considering the direction the Star Wars book canon went around the time Fate of the Jedi started getting released). Maybe it was a combination of the writers penning lacklustre tales and the artists making everything look homogenous across the board – seriously, much of the art in the Dark Horse era looks like it’s from the same overworked guy on most pages – but Star Wars and comics were two passions of mine that never really clicked.

That is, until Marvel started releasing multiple ongoing series in 2015. Not only did it click, it is now in danger of never coming apart from me until the next retconning board-wipe happens around the time Disney plan to release Episode IV.5 in 2060.

I spoke a little while ago about my enthusiasm for the new Darth Vader series in particular by calling it a remarkably twisted take on Doctor Who. Since we know Darth Vader will never die on the page, given his fate at the climax of Return of the Jedi, any attempt to milk drama from a cliffhanger regarding his safety would be pointless. Writer Kieron Gillen smartly circumvents that by crafting a rich array of supporting characters – notably the morally-flexible Dr. Aphra and her dynamic duo of deadly droids – and shaping a narrative trajectory built around drama that isn’t dependent on Vader being left in a new deathtrap at the end of each issue.

With that lack of focus on character mortality established, I was hesitant about diving into Vader Down. The premise offered by the title – Vader gets shot down on a planet where the Rebels subsequently swarm in to try and kill him – sounded both simplistic and self-resolving before I turned the first page. Luckily, Gillen and fellow Star Wars writer Jason Aaron make it perfectly clear that Vader’s fate isn’t the story’s primary focus. At least, his fate in terms of mortality isn’t the focus – his fate in regards to his position within the Empire is another matter.

Chiefly, Vader Down is an excuse to get the diametrically-opposed casts of both Darth Vader and the ongoing Star Wars series to meet, shake hands and get to know each other (or, rather, meet, exchange blaster fire and attempt to get out alive). It’s the first crossover the Star Wars ongoings have had since they started in 2015, and thus feels suitably epic in proportion to the scope of its six issues. Gillen and Aaron have crafted a crossover that’s less about universe-altering plot shake-ups and more about smaller character interactions. Both writers have done a fantastic job making their respective casts interesting and nuanced – a particularly impressive feat especially for Gillen’s cast of homicidal maniacs in Darth Vader – and there’s a sense of excitement when they cross paths with each other. Han Solo and Dr. Aphra exchanging blaster shots and verbal witticisms in equal measure is no less enjoyable than R2-D2 facing off with his black-clad counterpart BeeTee, the latter packing more heat than a barbecue pit. In terms of the few ongoing series plots with developments that stick in Vader Down, the most compelling is Vader’s continued attempts to get back in the Emperor’s good books, his battle against the Rebels serving as an opportunity to regain some face (though not the parts of it that were burned off on Mustafar).

Though the crossover does lack strong storytelling meat to go with its honey glaze of spectacle, that glaze is made all the sweeter by the art department. Salvador Larroca is the unsung hero of the Darth Vader series, continuing to demonstrate how to enhance Vader’s specter through strategic use of shading and lighting.  Larroca manages to evoke some more nightmare fuel from the Lord of the Sith in subtle renditions of his mask features, particularly in the slightly narrower drawing of Vader’s eyes and mouthpiece. You almost see Vader as glaring when he fights the Rebels, the firm black plasteel of his mask slowly morphing into a terrifying grimace. Mike Deodato similarly brings his own admirable artistic corpus to the table, meshing well with Larroca; both artists excel at somewhat more realistic depictions of the characters which look more like their film incarnations, rather than anything overly cartoonish. It’s also definitely worth giving credit to artist Mark Brooks, whose covers for each issue – particularly the one chosen for the trade paperback, seen at the end of this review – each evoke a strong Drew Struzan feel. That meshes well with Jason Aaron’s stated intent for Vader Down to be ‘the movie of the Marvel Star Wars comic books.’

The end result of Vader Down is that it’s a big, pulpy popcorn story (or maybe it’s a honey-glazed ham; see the confusing metaphor in the last paragraph). It serves as a reminder of how both the Star Wars and Darth Vader ongoings are probably the most well-written Star Wars comics in a long time, and that sometimes it’s very cool to see Darth Vader do his one-man army thing. Who knows, maybe this is the story which gave Gareth Edwards the inspiration for Rogue One‘s iconic ending scene.


STORY: 3.5/5



OVERALL: 11.5/15


REBEL SOLDIER: “Darth Vader! Lay down your weapons! You’re surrounded!”

VADER: “All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men.”

Superman: Son of Superman

Back when it started in 2011, Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman and Robin run was one of the unsung heroes of the New 52. It was a crisp, father-son action book with real heart, gorgeous artwork and, following Damian Wayne’s death, a solid emotional spine.

Sometimes it’s good to stick to what you know, which is probably why Tomasi and Gleason have teamed up for the new Superman comic – a crisp, father-son action book with real heart, gorgeous artwork and, following a battle with a robot on the moon, a solid emotional spine.

son-of-superman-3The Superman the world has loved for so long is dead. In his place is the pre-Flashpoint Clark Kent, who – along with his wife Lois Lane and young son Jon  – has recently been deposited in this universe. Much like a Trump impeachment, the world desperately needs a Superman, so the old-yet-new Clark sets out to protect the world from evil. At the same time, Jon begins manifesting the Kryptonian powers of his father, but has no idea how to control them. When a visit from robot enemy and Superman-impostor Eradicator threatens to tear the Earth apart, Clark must guide his son through his genetic inheritance while finding a way to put Eradicator down for good.

Although I’m fully up front on how son-of-superman-6much Son of Superman cribs directly from Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman and Robin work, I really like the way things panned out. The creative DNA of the latter is present, but it’s taken in a few new, nuanced directions which ultimately enhance the story. For example, part of the conflict between Bruce Wayne and Damian came from Bruce’s unwillingness, at first, to be a father; fate, and Talia al Ghul’s machinations, had pushed him there, and he had to adapt. Clark, on the other hand, embraces being a father, even if he comes to it with some difficulty at first. I mean, sure, raising a son you never knew you had who was brought up by the League of Assassins is tough, but I think that pales compared to having a child who manifests the ability to fry cats with laser vision.

son-of-superman-5What I’m getting at is that the father-son conflict here is less a matter of adaptation, than it is about discovery. Clark wants to be a father from the word go, holding his family up as the most precious thing to him, and a life he chose without reservations. Though Jon’s growth into his powers is tricky, Clark ultimately learns how to navigate it all through embracing the concept of fatherhood more than Bruce did at first. Thanks to that, it’s easier for Clark and Jon to find common ground faster than Bruce and Damian did, which results in them being able to team up and kick robot ass together.


Father-son superhero bonding sessions are the best.

Standing apart from the similarities to their B&R story, Tomasi and Gleason have written a story that feels at once relatable and extraordinary. On the one hand, early chson-of-superman-2ildhood and learning to be a father is tough, but on the other, they get to go to the moon and beat up a robot who has a bunch of Kryptonian souls inside him. I’ve definitely experienced worse family stories.

Much as I loved Son of Superman, I have to acknowledge that it does little which is revolutionary in its own right. It’s a tightly-plotted, well-written and – thanks to some superlative work by Gleason and cohorts – gorgeously illustrated book. Simultaneously, it feels like a solid first step, and not much more. The series’ appeal is going to live or die on where the creative team take things now that the specific father-son drama has been established. Superman feels ripe with potential, in yet another strong hit for the DC Rebirth initiative.

And if Son of Superman didn’t get you going, maybe this image from the next volume will.


Consider me very onboard for another Saga of the Super-Sons.


STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 4.5/5


OVERALL: 12.5/15

BEST DIALOGUE: “The world needs to see again that there’s a Superman looking out for them. You may not be here in body, but I know you are in spirit… the colors will fly.” – Pre-Flashpoint Clark Kent

Batman: I Am Gotham

I usually try to pitch my reviews to a broad audience. I know I’ve got veterans who’ll occasionally throw an eyeball to my ramblings, and I know plenty of newbies who are looking for recommendations and entry points. Besides, limiting your audience spread on a site like this is akin to deciding you’re only going to breathe half of the oxygen you need for the day, or that joining Scientology is a good life choice.

batman-i-am-gotham-9But this time, I feel I need to split focus. Though nowhere near the level of other DC controversies from the past decade, the new Batman series seems to be drawing boatloads of ire nonetheless. A cursory glance at its Goodreads page shows a number of…let’s call them discontented readers, to be charitable. A disproportionate number of the fanbase seem down on the new run by Tom King, now creeping into its third story arc and, according to some of the more vocal critics, showing no signs of becoming good anytime soon.

The thing is, though, I liked I Am Gotham quite a lot. Though everyone is entitled to their own criticisms, and I would certainly not go out of my way to try and Scientology someone into believing something they don’t, I feel a few unfair criticisms need to be specifically addressed. At the same time, I need to convince new folk that King’s story – while not necessarily the best or easiest entry point for the character – is a beginning worth picking up.

With that in mind, this review is a bifurcated one. I’ll speak a bit to the newbies first, then I’ll have a rant at the old guard. Well, I’ll try less to rant and more to persuade some critics to slide off their high horses when it comes to some specific points.

Actually, that does make me sound like I’m trying to Scientology you. Sorry.



Batman’s got a bit of a death wish.

After nearly dying while trying to save a crashing plane, Batman is rescued by new superheroes Gotham and Gotham Girl, a brother and sister with Superman-level abilities who claim they want to help the city they’re named after. Going through something of a depressive phase, Batman takes them on as quasi-sidekicks. Then it turns out they got their superpowers illicitly, then two Batman villains get involved, and it all goes downhill from there.

As entry points go, I Am Gotham is a decent start. It’s by no means the worst, nor does it reach the heights of other first volumes. It’s quite an interesting exploration of Batman’s psychology; we’vebatman-i-am-gotham-5 had it suggested for a while that Bruce is depressed and/or suicidal when he puts on the Batsuit, so to see it play out quite literally here was something I don’t think many other writers have done, or at least done well. It’s also intriguing to see the theme of legacy in play here – a theme quite well-worn in the Bat-titles – but by not involving any of the Robins. There’s an initial suggestion that Batman views Gotham and Gotham Girl as his potential successors, seeing as they can fly, shoot lasers from their eyes and have Kryptonian-level strength. After all, there’s only so much a dude with a sweet car and a grappling hook can do against collapsing bridges and suicide blimps (that said, though, I don’t see why Bruce doesn’t offer Superman a retainer sometimes). But that nice little legacy theme takes a hard right into Problemville halfway through the book, when things get a bit juicier. Without spoiling, the ending had a somewhat unpredictable resolution and the suggestion that things were about to get loopier. So consider me on board for that.

batman-i-am-gotham-7I would recommend I Am Gotham to new readers. If they were able to get some of the other first volumes like The Court of Owls or Hush, I’d go for those first, and I’d definitely offer it to those who’ve maybe read a few books but aren’t yet fully immerse in the canon. David Finch does excellent work on illustrations, the script is solid, if at times a little stodgy, and it’s an overall decent beginning to what will hopefully be a great run.


Now, for the rest of you, keep in mind there will some mild spoilers beyond this point.



Tom King was never going to be Scott Snyder.

This might be the most obvious thing I could say, particularly since both men have completely different names, faces and social security numbers. It might also be hypocritical for me to talk about dropping expectations in the wake of a beloved run, which is exactly what I railed against for both Rick Remender’s Captain America and Robert Venditti’s Green Lantern. I stand by my criticisms there, but I do acknowledge the folly in slamming a work mainly because it’s not as good as what came before it.

I Am Gotham is not an immediately classic like The Court of Owls was, and it seems unlikely that King and his rotating artists will necessarily shake themselves from the shadow of Snyder and batman-i-am-gotham-6Capullo anytime soon. But openly slagging the book off for that fact alone is in and of itself a lacking criticism. From the moment King was named for the book, I knew it’d be a very different flavour; Snyder’s more into the slightly pulpy character stuff with an ultimately optimistic tone, whilst King’s got a background in grimmer fare which goes to dark places, as in The Vision and Sheriff of Babylon. Not that Snyder’s story wasn’t dark (look no further than stories like The Black Mirror and Endgame), but I feel there was a threshold to his work which prevented it from slipping into something more nihilistic, a threshold King gleefully steps over from issue #1.

The biggest criticism I’ve read is that the book is boring. Really? A little dry here and there, with a couple of things that might pay off later, sure. But boring? If you want a Bat-book guilty of that sin then you should check out Knight Terrors, when David Finch somehow got it into his head that a Playboy bunny could work as a villain.

batman-i-am-gotham-4Part of that alleged boringness is Batman’s ineffectual nature, ceding the floor mainly to the Gotham siblings and fostering their character development. One review I read had some colourful things to say about that turn – synonyms for excrement were employed in that critique – because nobody cared about the Gothams. Well, we don’t care yet, because we’re still getting to know them (though I fully acknowledge that Gotham and Gotham Girl are terrible superhero names). King does a decent job giving each sibling enough character that they’re separate from one another, and by the end of the book it’s quite clear why Batman gave them so much more space in his own book. Part of that is because, for once, we really don’t know what he’s thinking.

What’s most surprising – and, for my money, enjoyable – about I Am Gotham is its immediate moves to alienate the reader from the main character. Though Bruce batman-i-am-gotham-1Wayne isn’t the most open book of a person, what King does here feels like a polar opposite to what Snyder and Capullo did with Court of Owls and its subsequent willingness to explore the more humanising sides of Bruce as a character. From the outset with King, though, both Bruce and Batman are unknowable, or at least not as knowable as supporting characters Alfred, Duke Thomas and the Gothams. We have little to help us work out what’s going on in his head when he nearly flies himself to his death, his mental space coming across as somewhat inscrutable. Even when he introduces the Gothams to Commissioner Gordon, it’s hard to know if he really thinks they can help the city, or if he’s just stringing them along as part of a tough love thing to show them they suck at crimefighting. Things do clear up by the end, but I actually enjoyed having to try and work out where Batman’s head was at, rather than have such motivation handed to me through blatant telegraphing or internal monologues.

batman-i-am-gotham-3The legacy theme I mentioned earlier is part of why Batman takes somewhat of a backseat here. Between his implied suicidal mindset and a few spoilery comments made near the end of the book, it’s clear that Bruce is looking at giving up the cape and cowl, probably via his death. Duke Thomas is already on his way to becoming a more integral part of the Bat-family, and it appears Batman legitimately views the Gothams as the next step forward in the war on crime. In the opening, Bruce gives a speech to Alfred on the inevitable mortality of Batman, noting that even his successors, like Dick Grayson, will eventually die and need replacing themselves. Bruce seems to have accepted that his time is nigh, and that what’s more important is Gotham City’s future – hence the greater focus on the two kids coming after him. It’s certainly a grim note to start on, and if King’s work is any past indication, it’ll only get grimmer.

The Gothams themselves have a somewhat interesting backstory, even though it reads as something which needs to be further unpacked as King’s run unfurls. Hank and Claire Clover make an immediate impression as Gotham and Gotham Girl (though their highly bland costumes need work), with the latter in particular offering potential for some richer character stories down the line. I could easily see these characters as part of the larger Bat-family, kicking ass with Nightwing and Cassandra Cain or battling Joker goons. They may not be the most immediately fleshed-out sidekicks Batman’s ever had, but at least they’re not the pair of flying logs that reviews have accused them of being.

Another albatross hung around I Am Gotham‘s neck is its place in Tom King’s body of work, particularly his prior run on The Vision. The latter was a short, self-contained and tightly-written batman-i-am-gotham-8superhero android domestic drama with a significant Phillip K. Dick/William Gibson flavour. The former is the start of what promises to be a much longer, explorative work which also has to make way for crossovers and franchise responsibilities here and there (see for example the upcoming Night of the Monster Men story). Comparing King’s Batman to his superlative work on The Vision is like comparing Mark Waid’s swashbuckling stint on Daredevil to his shorter, grander magnum opus Kingdom Come; yes, they’re written by the same author, but they’re quite different in terms of tone, themes, setting, characters and motivations. I adored King’s Vision duology, and was still able to enjoy how he got the ball rolling on Batman. Given the presence of some of King’s previous material regarding themes about progeny, the implication is that we might get the same kind of character unpacking for Bats which we got for Vision – it’ll just roll out over a longer period and with different purpose.

Now, despite the preceding 1500-ish words of proselytising, I’m not trying to get those who don’t like it to switch their opinions over; dislike it all you want. I’m also not trying to say the book is a flawless gem found at the bottom of a collapsed coal mine. I Am Gotham does have problems, as the dialogue can be somewhat wooden, a few of the art splashes don’t work, the Gothams’ costumes are fairly bland and their names even worse, and the final issue has a few spoilery issues with its pacing and structure. But it’s an ultimately harmless book. It’s not the herald of Bat-Ragnarok that a lot of reviews are spewing it is, nor is it a sign that Tom King signing an exclusivity deal with DC Comics was a bad idea. What it is a fine, solid start to a hopefully good run, with a novel premise that I hope King and his team see to fruition.

Either that or I’ll be proven completely wrong, and you can feel free to stick me in a pillory.



STORY: 3.5/5



OVERALL: 11/15


GENERAL LANE: “[Batman’s] not going to connect this… incident with us. And even if he did, this site isn’t on any books. He can’t find us. And even if – through a miracle – he did, we’re a mile below Gotham. A mile of concrete, steel vauls, and the best security the U.S. can buy or blackmail. I got six Blockbuster-level guys guarding that door alone. The damn Bat-Man isn’t going to touch us.”

AMANDA WALLER: “Lane… the damn Bat-Man is behind you.”

The Mighty Thor: Thunder in Her Veins

You couldn’t have produced a book like Jason Aaron’s The Mighty Thor twenty years ago. Maybe if you had, it wouldn’t be as entertaining as it is now; more likely we’d have something resembling Red Sonja with lightning hammers. The current run has been something of a pleasant novelty amongst the myriad generic capebooks currently on shelves; a clear story-and-character-driven piece which cares little for much of the superpowered crossover shenanigans going on around it. It’s written as both an empowering feminist paean, a thoughtful meditation on terminal illness, and a straightforward drama with superpowers. It’s what you’d get if you fused Supergirl, The Big C, and the political machinations of Game of Thrones. It is, pure and simple, a really great book.

lady thor 3

Thunder in Her Veins is the latest volume of Aaron’s epic Thor yarn, which began all the way back in 2013’s The God Butcher. In the years since, the previously-masculine Thor is now the tough-ass Dr. Jane Foster, the Odinson’s on-again-off-again romantic interest. Man-Thor has been told he’s no longer worthy to swing Mjolnir into the faces of unsuspecting supervillains, so the mantle’s been passed to Jane. As the new Thor, Jane flies around saving the Avengers, the Earth and the rest of the Nine Realms whilst slowly dying of breast cancer; wielding the hammer gives her strength, though it purges her system of chemotherapy drugs. While Jane considers the catch-22 of either a slow death from chemo or a quicker one from fighting bad guys, political movements within the Nine Realms threaten to destabilise Asgardia and unleash the evil power of Malekith, Lord of the Dark Elves and insatiable scenery-vore.

lady thor 1I’ve talked briefly about Aaron’s new take on Thor before, and I stand by what I said then as now. Jane Foster is a refreshingly different Thor to the original Odinson, at once embodying the old Thor’s braggadocio but tempering it with a more level-headed, sensible approach to superheroism. Where Man-Thor would’ve knocked Loki’s head off at the first sign of deception, Jane’s Thor instead takes the time to listen to Loki’s explanation of his behaviour, then knock his head off when his words show he really deserves it. She kicks ass, but isn’t the raging bull her masculine counterpart could be.

Her civilian identity’s impending death also lends a tragic element to the affair. Thunder in Her Veins goes to great lengths to stress that there is no way the magicks of Asgardia or the high-tech gadgets of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will be able to prevent the cancer from killing Jane Foster. The book has a grounded, human narrative enveloped within Thor‘s usually medieval superhero trappings; would you rather try and live longer at the expense of being alive, or cut short the journey in order to go beat up Frost Giants? Unsurprisingly, the book opts largely for the latter, though it adds nuance to the moments when Jane firmly decides she’s going to fly off with her hammer, cancer be damned.

The book also thumbs its nose at errant critics through a meta-undertaking similar to the Captain America: Sam Wilson series. Asgardia’s walls are plastered with lady thor 5WANTED posters declaring Jane’s Thor is an impostor; although the story’s conceit is that Jane’s powers were illegitimately given to her, the subtext, representing some of the wretched real world criticisms the book’s received about a woman wearing Thor’s mantle, is a fairly unsubtle one. Suffice it to say, neither Jason Aaron nor Jane herself seem to give a frosted lump of duck snot about whether their respective critics think she’s “worthy” enough to be Thor.

lady thor 7Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Thunder‘s biggest problem is its villains. Much like 2013’s big-screen epic Thor: The Dark World, Dark Elf Lord Malekith is once again the least interesting element of the proceedings, an unholy fusion of Dick Dastardly moustache-twirling and gothic hair-metal attire. He wants to discredit Thor and take over the Nine Realms because…he’s got nothing better to do? Besides garden-variety megalomania, Thunder – along with the preceding volumes of Aaron’s run – offers little to make Malekith an engaging antagonist. The scenery-chewing and overly-flamboyant villainy is somewhat fun on a base, Saturday-morning-cartoon level, but seems at odds with the much more thoughtful story going on with Jane. Malekith’s human co-conspirator – a character so completely engrossing and memorable that I forgot his name was Dario Agger until I Googled it just now – is a similarly weak presence.

I’m also mighty (ha!) confused by what’s going on with Odin. Tholady thor 4ugh previous Thor stories have done well in depicting the Allfather as a staunch guardian figure whose antagonism towards Thor stems from a protective outlook, Thunder can’t seem to decide whether he legitimately has problems with Jane or if he’s being influenced by someone else (more specifically, a character whose last comic book appearance was in a story I had multiple issues with). As it stands, Odin’s logic for opposing the new Thor is nonexistent, leaving a feeling that Thunder is making Odin a quasi-villain for some other, as-yet-undetermined purpose.

lady thor 2Dialogue is Aaron’s usual standard of excellence, though Loki’s words make him appear even more slippery and untrustworthy than he already is with that beard made of toothbrush bristles. Having Jane as the new Thor also lends her dialogue a bit of 21st-century-snark to complement the appropriately operatic introspection her Norse alter ego has.

Artwork is…well, it’s hard for me to put into words how much I adore Russell Dauterman’s art. While it’s admittedly a lady thor 6little overloaded with colour and frenetic action in the battle scenes, especially in comparison to how those aspects were handled in past volumes, Dauterman still makes The Mighty Thor one of the most visually delicious books on the shelf (Loki’s toothbrush beard notwithstanding).

Though it ends on a slightly underwhelming cliffhanger, Thunder In Her Veins is still a top-notch volume in a fantastic arc. It’s a decent jumping-on point for new readers as well as an excellent new chapter in Jason Aaron’s ongoing Thor epic, it’s got some quality writing, and it’s very, very pretty; a solid book about a dying woman kicking ass with a big hammer.

lady thor cover


STORY: 4/5



OVERALL: 13/15

BEST QUOTE: “[after having his head knocked off his shoulder] *Sigh*.” – Loki

Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide, Vol. 1

I love Star Trek. My two favourite series are easily The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. They’re quite literally apples and oranges; TNG focuses on slightly cliche monster-of-the-week episodes, while DS9 gets progressively more dramatic and serialised as the seasons go on. I like both styles of storytelling, though I do lean more to the latter for longer-form narratives. In either case, both series relied on strong, nuanced characters which were well-suited to their respective styles; Jean-Luc Picard may not have had Benjamin Sisko’s wartime character journey for seasons at a time, but the standalone nature of TNG was threaded with subtle character development which made Picard a consistently evolving figure for each new episode’s dilemma.

I say this upfront to let you know that I’m not opposed to more standalone, episodic storytelling in our modern age of binge-watch Netflix and the ongoing serialised sagas of Batman and Thor. This is to then contextualise my belief that the poorly-sketched characters and cliche episodic storytelling of Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide just do not work.


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Peter Parker has somehow won the lottery – I presume, since there’s not much explanation for how he suddenly became a billionaire – and founded the tech company and worldwide (ha!) philanthropy effort, Parker Industries (acronymed to P.I., because math joke). The newly-minted CEO finds his time split between running a global company, being Spider-Man, directing some other guy to be Spider-Man when the first thing conflicts with the second, and having an increasingly tense relationship with SHIELD. Into the mix comes a new incarnation of the Zodiac, a criminal supergroup whose sole purpose is to spout inane dialogue while hitting every star-sign cliche in the book. Though he risks burning his candle at multiple ends, resulting in a big ball of lumpy wax, Peter must save SHIELD, his company, his aunt and, at one ludicrous point, the British Museum from the Zodiac’s machinations.

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To be fair, Worldwide isn’t technically its own thing. It comes as the latest installment of Dan Slott’s behemoth Spider-Man saga, where Spidey dies, is possessed by Doctor Octopus, reclaims his body, meets a bunch of multidimensional versions of himself, then founds a billion-dollar philanthropic company (somewhere in there he also, presumably, visits the bathroom). I’ve never been a big fan of Slott’s work, though I did end up appreciating the superlative “villain protagonist” tale of the Doc Ock-possessed Superior Spider-Man.

spider-man worldwide 1Slott doesn’t draw me to his magnum opus the way Grant Morrison did with 7 years of Batman, even though he’s clearly trying to move in the same operatic direction the crazy Scotsman did with the Dark Knight. A big part of the problem is that Slott cannot write characters or dialogue to save his life, relying on trite cliches and inane banter at almost every turn. Sure, as per usual Spider-Man riffs on his team-mates with popular culture references and unbridled (mediocre) snark at every opportunity, but even the sterling characters Slott had a hand in creating – notably Anna Maria Marconi, ensemble darkhorse of Superior Spider-Man who’s relegated to little more than a cameo role here – seem to have lost a dimension or two in the interim. Superior benefited from the richness and depth of its ancillary players, making the story feel more like an ensemble piece than the eponymously-named protagonist’s journey it was marketed as. All such depth, as a continuation of Slott’s work, seems to have been filled in with gravel.

The supporting cast can do little but mouth dialogue which sounds like it was written for a badly-acted telenovela. A series of key scenes where Spidey and Mockingbird team up to save Aunt May and some African villagers is crammed with wall-to-wall verbal detritus which merely shows the former is arrogantly cocky and the latter is stern, as if we didn’t know that already. A punch-up between Spidey and the Human Torch – in the refurbished Baxter Building, no less – reads like it’s shooting for a Joss Whedon Avengers-style lackadaisical quality to highlight the fight’s inherently contrived nature, but is instead a juvenile exercise in pitting two young men against each other with the mindsets of twelve-year-olds. A dance at a wedding between Peter and his business partner flits between romantic allusion, corporate game-planning and insinuated threats in the space of less than a page, with no smooth transition between tones. If there’s any intended irony in Slott’s kindergarten-level dialogue, it remains as elusive as a Dragonite in Pokemon GO.

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With such poor characters behind the wheel, the story is beyond the help of even the staunchest automotive technician. In contrast to Superior‘s character-based, Doc Ock-led odyssey into anti-villainy, almost everything that happens in Worldwide is plot-driven with minimal meaningful character involvement. You could very easily swap Spidey for any of his Avengers cohorts – Iron Man would probably work best, a fact the story quickly and repeatedly points out in its opening chapter – and no-one would bat an eye, so formulaic and boilerplate is the plot. Each chapter centers around a problem that needs to be solved – usually the Zodiac doing something naughty – which is swiftly addressed before some vague foreshadowing for future problems at the chapter’s conclusion. There are some intriguing notions of Peter’s philanthropic, corporate and SHIELD responsibilities muddying the waters of his regular modus operandi, and how his long-standing promise to always save Aunt May before all else could also compromise his new responsibilities to go with such great power. The notions the story hints at could’ve made for a far more engaging, subversive take on the Spider-Man status quo.

Sadly, such notions are clearly not intriguing enough for Slott to comprehensively develop them. No, Slott would much rather focus on all of Spidey’s new Batman-inspired hardware; go on and tell me the Spidermobile, pictured above, isn’t just a Tumbler repaint. Or, worse still, he’d prefer to develop a latent plot thread which is both utterly asinine and a complete undercutting of Superior Spider-Man‘s emotional ending. I won’t spoil the latter here, but it’s in the first chapter; I dare you not to imprint your palm upon your forehead when you see it.

spider-man worldwide 5As with so many other mediocre books, the one area Worldwide succeeds in is the artwork. Giuseppe Camuncoli is a welcome addition, offering a more reasoned and realistic counterpoint to Humberto Ramos’ more exaggerated, cartoonish style in Superior. The panels can be overloaded with colour at times, and several of the fight scenes – including the aforementioned ludicrous defence of the British Museum – are a bit incomprehensible, but for the most part Camuncoli does solid work. The covers for each chapter are also done by Alex Ross, superhero artist par excellence, so those are welcome additions.

Reading over this review, I realise I’m coming off as overly harsh. Worldwide isn’t a bad book the way One More Day, No More Humans or Great Pacific were bad books. It’d spider-man worldwide 6be considered merely “meh” if it weren’t for the surging river of resurgent superlatives that Marvel’s churned out over the last few months. Paired with its compatriots, Worldwide is little more than a bauble, hopefully only a postscript to Slott’s objectively stronger previous work. I understand a writer being passionate enough about a character to stick with their book for as long as you can – this is part of what started to kill the third act of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern run as it reached its overdue climax – but maybe it’s time for Slott to move to another comic. The logical step after Worldwide is to have Spidey run the Avengers, then the world itself, then the universe. After that, the crossover event Secret Wars: Beat Pete will follow Marvel’s heroes trying to unravel a multiverse firmly controlled by the Parker Empire. Best quit while you’re ahead before we reach the turgid fanfic stage, Mr Slott.

spider-man worldwide cover


STORY: 1.5/5

ARTWORK: 3.5/5


OVERALL: 6.5/15

BEST QUOTE: “You haven’t known Mockingbird long, Prowler. She says arm up, you break out the nukes.” – Nick Fury

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1

The following post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the recent first issue of Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers comic series. Presumably, though, you already know what I’m about to talk on.

As per usual, a superhero comic book has stoked controversy. Of course, I’m talking about this moment:

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Yup. It appears, for all intents and purposes, that Steve Rogers, the Marvel Universe’s favoured patriotic son and symbol of ultimate incorruptibility, is and has been a secret Hydra agent all this time.

Except, maybe not really. But we’ll come back to that.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is a fine comic book issue. Not a fine example the way an exquisite chardonnay might be, but just plain fine. Functional. Serviceable. It follows Steve fighting a new incarnation of Hydra, run by a populist new version of Red Skull whose motivation of underground crowds perturbs the more comically exaggerated Baron Zemo. Besides the ending, the issue pushes no envelopes, breaches no borders, tempts no fate. It gets the job done; the job, in this case, being to simultaneously reboot Steve Rogers in the Stars and Stripes and garner enough hype that people care about the comic again. In those respects, it accomplishes the task admirably.

new cap 7Let me back up a second. Ever since Ed Brubaker’s superlative run on the book ended several years ago, the Captain America comic has lagged behind as the greater Marvel juggernaut advances. Rick Remender offered a paltry follow-up to Brubaker’s classic, in much the same way that both Kieron Gillen and Tom Taylor respectively failed to follow in the footsteps of Matt Fraction’s sterling time with Invincible Iron Man. I term these runs as ‘palate-cleanser arcs’, operating between major and more well-received runs from notable creators where the follow-up ends up setting the high bar much lower in order for the next big creator to raise it once more (see also things like Andy Diggle’s Daredevil as a bridge between the Bendis/Brubaker and Waid years, or Tony Daniel’s poor stewardship of Batman between Grant Morrison’s and Scott Snyder’s respective storylines). The weight of subsequent expectation on popular comics is crippling, and so someone has to be called in to produce work that can range from markedly poor to adequately functional. For post-Brubaker Captain America that person was Remender, and his run was, by most accounts, not a very good one.

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Pictured: A visual representation of the effect of Rick Remender’s time on Captain America.

So here comes Nick Spencer, fresh from his turns on Secret Avengers and the outstanding Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Between this book and its sister series, Captain America: Sam Wilson, Spencer seems keen to make a big mark on the Star-Spangled Man (Men?). He’s a great writer, and given what came before him it wouldn’t be hard for his work to subsequently top Remender’s. Also keep in mind that a new Captain America film has recently come out to rave reviews and insane box office returns, so Marvel might be keen to get some groundswell going for what was once one of the most popular ongoing comics they had in publication.

To accomplish this, they make Steve Rogers a secret member of Hydra. Stun. Shock. Horror.

I am almost completely unfazed.new cap 3

To dispel the idea of my dismissal of the issues at hand as being down to a lack of love for Marvel’s favourite patriot, I want to state unequivocally that I hold Cap very close to my heart. While not having the same personal weight as Batman, the Captain is nonetheless hugely important to me. Hell, my Honours thesis compared him to the Bat as contemporary, slightly more realistic superheroes. The influence of Winter Solder and The Death of Captain America, the latter being one of my best comics I’ve ever read, cannot be overstated in terms of my development as both a comic reader and reviewer. Cap means a lot, and I certainly understand – to a point – why others are up in arms over this perceived betrayal regarding his new origin.

And if simple disagreement over this retcon was the end of the story, I wouldn’t be writing this diatribe. Of course, this situation eclipsed simple disagreement a while ago.

new cap 4As of the time of writing, Nick Spencer’s received a slew of death threats over the issue. Social media is in a frenzy over this perceived egregious mishandling of an iconic character; hashtags like #SayNoToHYDRACap have been trending like crazy. Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort had to defend the issue during an interview with TIME Magazine, explaining that this was part of a much longer storytelling decision. The general consensus from the overreactive beast that is the online comics community has been ferocious, undiscerning and damn near farcical. (I should stress here that not all people in the community are as pissed off about this as the majority – just that said majority is currently turned to a much higher volume.)

My reaction to this boils down to two things. Neither are intended to entirely dismiss the critical feedback the issue has received (except those who criticise with death threats, which, come on guys), but rather to provide context as to why this isn’t the catastrophic alteration many mistakenly believe it is. Also that word, context, is going to be very important here.

So let’s start with the obvious thing: this is a move done in a superhero comic. Superhero comics get changed all the time.

One of the hallmarks of capebooks is that their canon changes at the drop of a hat (or, usually, the clink of company coin). Very little that occurs within a superhero story is something that stays for life; Grant Morrison had fun with this during his Batman days, where he implied that every event of Bruce’s life that had to be retconned was explained as Batman being insanely high at the time. Apart from most of the key essentials of origin stories – the death of the Waynes, Tony Stark’s heart shrapnel, Steve getting the super-serum, Uncle Ben’s death – exceedingly few character changes are ones that are maintained forever without some alteration or outright excision.

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That fact results in two possibilities for Cap going forward. One is that the Hydra change is intended as a temporary thing from the start; perhaps this shocking moment now will be recontextualised later on, showing that Steve’s actually a triple agent. Maybe he’s trying for a deep cover thing with Hydra for some other purpose. Right now we have very little context to go on for this reveal (an issue I’ll talk more about in a moment). All we know is that Cap has uttered Hydra’s infamously memetic catch-cry, and that he and his mother had a woman try to convince them to come to a clandestine Hydra meeting back in the 1940s. That is literally all we know for certain, no matter what Brevoort or Spencer himself might say.

The second possibility is that this change will itself be retconned if it proves to be so unpopular. Remember what Morrison did with the infamous ‘Magneto is Xorn’ reveal in New X-Men? Marvel kicked that to the curb not long afterwards with a subsequent retcon that dismissed the reveal entirely as Xorn being some crazy guy who thought he was Magneto. Sure, said retcon was hamfisted and poorly executed, but, much like the Captain America issue itself, it accomplished the task the publishers wanted. Superhero aspects are as fluid and transient as they are subject to continued company approval, especially when new movies are on the horizon. I have no doubt, should Spencer’s storytelling prove long-term to be irksome to Marvel’s accountants, that a mandate will result in Steve saying, ‘No, what I actually said was “Snail Hydra”, because Baron Zemo was so slimy he left a trail behind him to follow!’

(Can you tell that superhero humour isn’t my strong suit?)new cap 2

The other thing, which I alluded to earlier, is that this is only the first issue of the story. Traditionally, superhero arcs consist of a good five or six issues that make up a whole story. As it stands we have only one issue, and the context it alone provides (again, disregarding statements by Spencer and Brevoort – comic creators like to lie with Moffat-level conviction). We don’t know if Steve isn’t a triple agent. We don’t know if he and his mother went to that Hydra meeting. We do not know anything besides what we’ve seen in this issue – and let’s face it, what we saw wasn’t much.

Steve and his mother are offered the Hydra pamphlet – what if they turned down the invitation to go to the meeting? Steve throws his ally Jack Flag out of a jet before Hailing Hydra – since fellow ally Free Spirit was flying around on a ReBoot-style hoverboard outside, how do we know she doesn’t catch him in midair immediately afterwards? Steve utters Hydra’s line to the captured Dr. Selvig – do we know whether this was an ironic utterance, or an affirmation that the two of them are involved in this false flag operation together?

The answer to all of the above is that we simply do not know, and we won’t know until subsequent issues provide further context. Knee-jerking to a last page reveal is exactly what Marvel would’ve had in mind when Spencer pitched this idea to them: let’s drum up some controversy and convince people to come back next month to see what happens next. In that respect, I’d say they’ve undoubtedly succeeded.

I think io9’s James Whitbrook sums up my reaction to all this quite neatly:

“To be fair, I’m certain Marvel will do something fun with [the reveal]—this is hardly the first example of comics doing something inexplicably goofy for the sake of catchy headlines, and had a ball with the aftermath. Comics are built on gimmicks like this and playing with them. I’m looking forward to seeing where Nick Spencer and [artist] Jesus Saiz take this plot line. It’s always exciting to be at the start of something completely ludicrous, and just see where it goes—because this is definitely right up there in the “ludicrous comics nonsense” category. I look forward to Steve Rogers eventually being revealed as a quintuple agent or something. But please, let’s not pretend this is real, or permanent, or won’t be utterly undone in a storyarc or two.”

I said earlier I’m almost completely unfazed by this issue. I’m fazed in that it’s piqued my curiosity to see where Spencer is going with this. If the issue’s intent was to make me interested in Steve Rogers as Cap again, it’s nailed that to a tee. I want to see what happens next, whether it lasts for a handful of issues or a hundred.

new cap 8I’m not about to say those who are pissed aren’t entitled to being strongly against this change – you most certainly are. I was infuriated when Morrison “killed” Batman back in 2008, a fury that lessened as context was provided by the subsequent story. If you’re upset at this, you have every right to express your discontent or disagreement with Spencer and Marvel itself. I won’t even criticise most of the reviewers who are currently slaying the issue on Goodreads, though I’d guess a decent percentage of them probably haven’t even read the book itself – hurray for bandwagons!

No, I won’t say you shouldn’t like the issue. But let’s get real here. This is, one way or another, a temporary thing. This is a thing currently lacking appropriate context. This is a thing that has not yet been fully unfurled. This is a thing that should not precipitate death threats.

(I imagine Spencer’s probably off having a few stiff drinks with Superior Spider-Man‘s Dan Slott right now, taking pointers from the latter on how to deal with irate fans who jeopardise writerly mortality when their favourite character goes through a change they abhor.)

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is a serviceable, visually decent and adequately scripted comic with a gimmicky ending, no more, no less. Can we stop treating it as if it’s the most heinous betrayal of a loyal fandom since this one, please?

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Spider-Gwen: Most Wanted?

I haven’t seen Despicable Me, but I understand the appeal of the Minions. They’re the now-ubiquitous yellow blobs with coveralls and Homer Simpson hair, starring in your favourite crossover parody posters on the internet (like this one). Within the film they’re the servants of the villainous Gru, capable of making only grunts and vague attempts at coherent speech that some viewers find endearing. Because of how funny they were as a background aspect of a larger story, DreamWorks (EDIT: It was actually Illumination Pictures, because I apparently don’t follow proper research methods) jumped on that bend in the zeitgeist and gave them their own, self-titled Minions film. The resulting mediocre movie didn’t do as well critically as its mothership title, resulting in something passable and adequate rather than the comedy blockbuster DreamWorks Illumination Pictures was hoping for.

spider-gwen 5Spider-Gwen occupies a similar slot of “background element given its own platform”, and the ensuing comic series feels comparably bland. It’s by no means bad on the level of a Tony Daniel or Scott Lobdell book, but its lack of ambitious substance results in what I’d almost call an entirely forgettable sojourn, if it weren’t for the legion of cosplayers who’ve adopted Gwen’s new getup as their next favourite thing.

Our eponymous webslinger initially made her mark in the Edge of Spider-Verse miniseries, itself a tie-in to the Spider-Verse event that brought together the deep multiversal bench of Marvel’s arachnid-themed heroes. What spider-gwen 4begins in a cutesy little one-off issue of Edge – helpfully reprinted in this collection – spins out into a continuing series where, in an alternate Marvel universe, Gwen Stacy got the life-changing bug bite. The unaltered Peter Parker, jealous of Gwen’s powers, becomes that universe’s version of the Lizard and ends up dying, leaving Gwen racked with guilt in much the same manner our universe’s Peter is stricken by failing to save his own Gwen. Thusly guilt-ridden, Ms Stacy continues on as Spider-Gwen, the hoodied saviour of New York pitted against a criminal, thoroughly amoral interpretation of Matt Murdock and his clan of Hand ninjas.

spider-gwen 1Most Wanted? had the potential to meaningfully flesh out what could only be hinted at during the Edge of Spider-Verse tie-in. I was intrigued by the potential of an empowered, rapid-fire-snarking Gwen Stacy who can pole vault across New York with nothing but the web from her wrists. The fact the story resided in its own little corner of the Multiverse, unhindered by the 616 or anything Ultimate-related, was also encouraging: no event hijacking here! It seemed like a good combination of factors that should’ve produced a nice little story.

While I won’t say Most Wanted? is a bad story, it’s certainly not one I liked. A large part of that may have been the truckloads of hype heaped upon the debut of Spider-Gwen’s ongoing series, augmented particularly by cosplayers and feminist readers. Maybe this is once again a reminder of the dangers of hype culture, especially when what worked in a nice little one-off or background moment is suddenly given too much space to expand into.

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Not every capebook requires Vince Gilligan-levels of depth, but one would at least expect an attempt at some substance. Most Wanted? falls at that hurdle until the book’s middle, during a wonderfully rendered series of scenes depicting Gwen hesitantly visiting her Peter Parker’s Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Everything until this point relies on flashy montages of battle inexpertly paired with attempts at brevitous witticisms, which run for far too long without offering much in the way of who Gwen is as a character rather than a superhero. Part of Spider-Man’s appeal is in exploring Peter as a young man, using the costume both as a day job and (at least initially) coping mechanism for his Uncle’s death. His wit works because we’re well aware of what he’s been through, what he deals with on a regular basis and what occurs when he takes the mask off and becomes Peter again. Gwen doesn’t manifest this kind of characterisation until that midpoint, where the full extent of her misplaced shame and guilt at failing to save Peter is beautifully and concisely explored during her conversations with Peter’s family.

As much as the story irked me, the Elseworlds-style nature of its makeup also offered some things to like. spider-gwen 7Top of the list is a deliciously deplorable incarnation of Matt Murdock, who eschewed Daredeviling in order to be the slimiest protector of criminals completely legal attorney person, as well as the Millienially-insane Mary Jane Watson, here depicted as a rampant diva who fronts the eponymously-named band Gwen’s been ostracised from, and an anti-heroic – and decidedly Punishing – police officer named Frank Castle. The stronger elements are aided by the art stylings of Robbi Rodriguez (which, sadly, is not the nomenclature for a formerly famous Grindhouse director). There’s a distinct inspiration of graffiti art in Rodriguez’s work, slanting the illustration towards a grungy, almost French animation style of slight exaggeration and vibrant colouring. At times the art gets a little overloaded with red and purple colours, and Gwen’s body actions occasionally resemble more of a yoga-pilates Jedi Master than her character would realistically suggest, but overall it works fine with the story it’s telling.

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By far my biggest gripe is with the dialogue. Now, I understand both that I am not the target audience for this book, and that it isn’t unreasonable for contemporary teen characters like Gwen to speak in modern teenage lingo. But Mary, Mother of God is it annoying. Exceedingly little of the dialogue (again, with the exception of the scenes at Rancho de Parker) doesn’t immediately make me want to bury my palm into my frontal lobe.

spider-gwen 2This is a book whose cast is led by teens, and by gum does the book want you to know it. A scene where Gwen’s phone’s been snagged drives that point home when Gwen protests, ‘My whole life is in that phone!’ Now, granted, that phone does contain information about her life as a webslinger, but the way the story’s dialogue frames this and several other scenes – including a Gwen-led quip-fest during a ninja onslaught at a rock concert, which includes the phrase ‘Pyjama party erry damn day, yo!’ – indicates it’s targeting a social media addicted, Tumblr-enveloped crowd of Millennials whose lingua franca cocktail consists of ear-burning sarcasm mixed with deplorable attempts at dry wit. Despite me not fitting Most Wanted?‘s intended demographic, I don’t think my reaction is purely a case of misaimed dialogue; the new Ms. Marvel series managed to make contemporary teen characters relatable and not come off as latte-fueled snark machines. But like I said, I don’t think I quite align with Spider-Gwen’s target market.

It’s entirely possible those of you the book is speaking to will find much to enjoy in Gwen’s attempts at spider-gwen 8sarcastic banter while swinging around New York, but I’m left once again thinking about that Minions comparison I started with. Divorcing a popular element from the mothership narrative means that element has to stand on its own, building a story strong enough for it to support alone. The one major thought that Most Wanted? kept prompting was that the character, on its current trajectory, can’t last for long and maintain her novelty; sooner or later she’ll change from her quirky starting incarnation, and become just another Marvel superhero comic. Where something like Ms. Marvel excels is in the plethora of stories G. Willow Wilson both implies and expands on in her exploration of Kamala Khan’s character, dissecting issues of ethnicity, culture and nascent adulthood alongside all the usual superhero trappings of villains and team-ups. By comparison, Spider-Gwen appears to only have one clear narrative throughline – Gwen’s guilt over Peter’s death – and while it attempts to create another one with the relationship between Gwen and her father, that story doesn’t hold enough water to maintain my level of interest.

Most Wanted? might be a fun diversion for some, but I wouldn’t bank on it as a continuing series. Seeing scenes of Minions within the larger Despicable Me narrative might be fun, but a full film of the yellow potato people feels like indulgence at the expense of novelty. Maybe Spider-Gwen could learn a lesson from that.

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STORY: 3/5

ARTWORK: 3.5/5


OVERALL: 8.5/15

BEST QUOTE: “Ah, Felicia, my little black cat… don’t you know it’s bad luck to murder your guests? And even if it weren’t, it’s just flat out rude.” – Matt Murdock