Comics // Review // Black Canary #4

Concise //

Black Canary has been established in an unusual niche for mainstream comics; a superhero without a city, a setting that is almost a road movie somewhere between Almost Famous and Easy Rider, and a visual style as much devoted to the physicality of live performance and the paraphernalia of the music tour as it is to traditional action scenes of comic books. These qualities are often on display, but the real strength of the writing is in how it uses the book’s central conceit (superhero-in-a-rock-band!) as a generator for intriguing plots, diverse characters, and interesting settings. This issue lets the lead take something of a backseat in order to delve deeper into the formation of the original band and the fallout from changing the line-up. It’s an usual approach, but it’s one that pays dividends, offering up some compelling and sympathetic character work whilst maintaining the brisk and engaging pace that previous issues have established.

Black Canary #4 Cover

Spoilerful //

The world of Black Canary has slowly been growing with new heroes and villains emerging from not just Dinah’s past, but the band’s collective history too. The book started strong, but it was in the last issue that the various narrative pieces really started to come together. Dinah is of course the heart of the book, but her relationship to the band Black Canary has become a central focus so the reappearance of a spurned former lead singer is one with a great deal of thematic resonance. Writer Brenden Fletcher takes this issue to build on what we know about the characters and the band itself, almost sidelining Dinah from a narrative perspective, but with wonderful results. The history of Black Canary that we have been piecing together from news articles, blog posts, and passing hints, finally takes centre stage, along with a woman who considers herself the victim of it.

Whilst this is certainly another high quality issue, I was sad to see that it was without the greatness of Annie Wu’s art. Fortunately guest artist Pia Guerra is a good sub for Wu, and whilst I miss the punk brilliance of Wu’s art, Guerra gamely steps up and delivers a very well put together issue. One of the hallmarks of Fletcher’s writing is the use of diegetic visual elements to help support the storytelling (emails and texts in Batgirl, for example) and here Guerra delivers great character work via the faux album covers that open the issue. It is clear just from these panels that Meave is both an outlandish fantasist and something of a self-serious diva. The panel work is also on top form throughout, continuing a strong run of well laid out pages in this book. The panels of Ditto mimicking Maeve’s dance moves were simple, but effective, giving a great sense of motion and adding the atmosphere of playful consequence-less-ness around Maeve (despite her gravely serious actions). The mirroring of this layout in the scuffle between Dinah and the car thief was another great moment, one that highlights the differences between these two women – Maeve is able to breeze through life focused on a single thing, her own vision of success, blithely sacrificing anyone to the cause whilst Dinah is constantly side tracked by the needs of others, she can’t even complete a mission to save Ditto without having to take a break to save someone else. For Maeve life is about having fun, or dancing, with people until they get you where you want to go, for Dinah it is about putting your own concerns to one side in order to do the right thing and stop, or dodge the punches of, criminals.

The entire book works to establish this theme, the contrast between these two people. I appreciated the effort to round out Maeve’s character here, yes it is clear from the start that she is unwell, but great care was taken to cast her in a sympathetic and engaging light. She never endangers Ditto’s life (although it was perhaps naive of Maeve to assume Amanda Waller and the paramilitary types wouldn’t do so) and in fact become quite likable despite what she is doing to everyone. Her back story was also compellingly told and Fletcher does well to establish that she is an unreliable narrator giving a slanted version of events at the same time as showing us the core of the truth. Maeve admits to abandoning her family claiming that they were viewing her as a “commodity” before going on to describe herself in basically the same terms (her ability to money and invest it wisely); we see that her parents are concerned about her leaving, but it looks more like it is out of love than for lost profits. She admits to being a difficult artist, even is she sees it as a virtue rather than a byproduct of ego. She even openly admits to trying to burn down a recording studio full of people (!) and goes on to demonstrate that Dinah has become a focus of her disquieted mind (the conflated timeline here further suggests troubling aspects of Maeve’s mental state: almost immediately after she walks out on the video shoot and contract talks she sees Dinah on the stage in her place). If Maeve’s telling is to be believed it does seem like she has worked hard and sacrificed a lot to succeed in a tough business, so it is a small tragedy that she can only see Dinah as an obstacle to her success who ‘had it easy’ given that in many ways they could be kindred spirits. In her life Dinah has never had it easy, nor I suspect would she want to take the easy route, but Maeve hasn’t been privy to the darkness she’s lived through and doesn’t seem to care in case. It’s an interesting story to tell and the team are making great work of it: a Behind the Music-style story of petty band squabbles, diva tantrums, and broken contracts given a super-heroic twist in the form of Canary Cries and magic bassists.

One qualm that I have had with this book so far is the tendency to disregard the support characters, a tactic that I thought had come to an end last issue when Byron, Paloma, Heathcliff, and even new boy Kurt seemed to be growing more integral to the book’s story telling. This issue dials all of those characters right back though, with barely a handful of panels between them, even despite the fact that they are essential ingredients in the brewing revenge plot. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the time taken to flesh out Maeve so it is probably a net gain for this arc at least, but I must admit it’s a shame not to see the band more involved in the plots by now; the book’s name does refer to the entire band Black Canary rather than just Dinah ‘D.D’ Lance after all.

Everything is in place for this book to continue getting even better; the cast, the writing, the distinctive visual style that Wu has developed and Guerra has sustained, it’s all well established and the introduction of an intriguing new potential hero ninja only raises the stakes even more. Each issue of this story has strengthened an already strong concept, and helped to turn it into an excellent read. This issue is no different, and I can’t wait to see where Fletcher, Wu, et al take this band next!

Black Canary #4 Panel 2

Black Canary #4 // Writer Brenden Fletcher / Artist – Pia Guerra / Colours – Lee Loughridge // DC

Notes //

– The cell tower ping was an interesting moment as Maeve is clear that she won’t be using her phone so as to avoid tracking via GPS. Did Waller’s crew ping the tower on Maeve’s behalf to put people off her sent, or was something more mysterious going on? it seemed pretty clear that the ping was a miss-direct by someone given that the Dinah’s search ultimately hit a dead end and no one recognised Maeve or Ditto. At one point I wondered if Ditto herself used Maeve’s phone somehow, but it didn’t seem like she was that concerned about the whole affair.

– I loved that Dinah called on the technical expertise of the New DCU’s Oracle Frankie Charles for that tracking assist.

– Lee Loughridge continues to deliver wonderful colour work on this book – from the sun down Easy Rider opening to the washed out memories to the car headlight bleached finale, Loughridge is able to enhance the writing and artwork and evoke just the right mood.

– Something in the timing of the appearance and Ditto’s face made me wonder if the ninja in white might be a manifestation of Ditto’s unusual powers. But then she was watching over the motel at the end so that theory kind of doesn’t make any sense any more.

– No Burnside Tofu this ‘ish – where am I going to get my fanzine-fix?!

– I have literally never understood the name ‘Maeve’ or how to pronounce it. Help me out here, does it rhyme with ‘pave’ (so why the extra ‘e’) or ‘Neve’ (why the ‘a’), or is it somehow like the colour (why not a ‘u’)?

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Comics // Review // Gotham Academy #10

Concise //

Ever true to it’s inspiration (an almost Harry Potter meets Batman story) Gotham Academy continues to tell delightfully spooky mystery stories against the backdrop of a labyrinthine boarding school in DCs most dangerous city. Artfully drawing on the rich history of the Batman to establish it’s own mythology this issue drop more hints about the wider back story of both the Academy and Olive Silverlock, but it never loses focus on a terrific done-in-one story involving ghosts, impostors, and the dangers of putting on the Scottish play. This is another great issue with wonderful writing and gorgeous art on every page – this book keeps delivering spills and thrills every single month.

Gotham Academy #10 Cover

Spoilerful //

Every issue of Gotham Academy tells us more about the school itself even as it adds back layer upon layer of mystery and intrigue to proceedings. Last issue left things in the midst of high drama as Olive saw the ghost of her mother and a fire erupted; this issue delivers literal drama as the gang go undercover in a drama club performance of Macbeth in order to find out the truth about ghosts and monsters. Things take a surprising turn when a different villain takes centre stage.  Maps’ shy roommate Katherine turns out to be very different to what she seems: the man known as Clayface.

We never discover Katherine’s full name as Olive cuts her off before she can finish saying it; this is an early subtle clue to her identity – “Kar…” is presumably Karlo, Basil Karlo being Clayface’s original identity. This isn’t the only example we have of the gang ignoring Katherine’s existence though as they go on to lament that Olive has to perform two roles in the play due to there being “no one else to do it“. I genuinely felt sorry for Katherine at this point, especially given how important acting seemed to be to her. Of course this desire to act is really Clayface’s and it’s not surprising he get mad later in the issue given that he craves attention and isn’t getting noticed at all. Katherine has been getting up to some shady business for a while now, including rifling through Olive’s room last issue, and her introduction here offers a moment of eldritch horror. Kerschl draws Katherine’s first appearance from a low angle and with blackened eye sockets as she emerges from the smoke; it’s a startling and scary appearance that immediately unsettles. And yet this book has regularly introduced us to awkward and unusual denizens of the Academy (such as Eric who makes a cameo as the drama club lighting technician) with Kerschl’s art varying in style to help characterize some of the social outsiders at the school. This could have been the case with Katherine; maybe she’s just a wallflower who’s jealous of her roommate Maps’ best friend Olive, and who is trying desperately to use the school play as a creative outlet and a way to get notice. The great surprise though is that as likely as this is there is an even more organic resolution to her story.

The dramatic revelation the Katherine is actually a construct of Clayface is a tremendous one, played by Kerschl like the climax of a horror movie – Katherine cracking a dark smile as clay enshrouds her reminds of The Ring or even The Exorcist. Once revealed Clayface is a towering and imposing presence and it is great to see the amazing character design from the Batman: The Animated Series making so faithfully rendered. Typically we’d see a big fight after this reveal, but this book has to be smarter than that; it quickly becomes clear that Clayface has come to the school to get revenge on an old acting rival (he’s always been precious about his acting) leading to a showdown on the stage. It’s a fun moment as Simon Trent and Clayface trade Shakespearean quotes until the latter decides a punch will do instead. It’s great to see Olive and Maps work together smartly to use a fire hose to bring Clayface down (how much must he hate fire hoses by now) even after they have had a few friendship troubles this issue. Even when emotions run high the Detective Club can be counted on to get the job done.

There has been a larger mythology developing in the background of this book since it began; first there was the question of Oliver’s parentage, then her personal history with the Batman, and more recently the potential that she has a calamitous fire-starting power of her own. Olive confesses to her therapist, Hugo Strange, that she saw the ghostly figure of her mother just before the fire started last issue, a confession that is accompanied by a genuinely unsettling flash of a ghostly eyeball, again invoking classic horror movie imagery such as the climax of Ringu (see also Katherine’s melting face during her escape). The context of the recent fires and hauntings offer two possibilities and it is testament to the brilliant writing on the book that either could satisfyingly be true; either Olive’s mother Calamity has returned to Gotham (as ghost or resurrected villain) or Olive is unknowingly starting the fires herself and imagining her mother’s presence. There have been plenty of moments in Olive’s history that have shed light on her possible mental state and even in this issue Clayface takes a moment to tell Olive “Your mom was crazy! Hope it doesn’t run in the family“. What is really going on with Olive and her mother only time will tell, but this story is sure doing great work keeping me guessing!

This book has really become the spiritual descendant of those incredible Batman cartoons from surprisingly long ago. Like Batman: The Animated Series this book features gorgeous art and character designs, as well as sharp writing that belays it’s youthful demographic and delivers smarter plots and dialogue than one might expect from a book/show ‘for kids’. Although there are no answers to the questions that brought our heroes to the stage there is still time for some very fun scenes, a dramatic twist, and plenty of clues to the greater mysteries at the academy. This might be the best issue of this book yet, not only because it features my favourite Batman villain, but also because it is brings together everything that the book does so well – this book is all mystery and fun and damn fine art.

Gotham Academy #10 Panel 2

Gotham Academy #10 // Writers – Becky Cloonan & Brendan Fletcher / Art – Karl Kerschl with Msassyk / Colours – Serge Lapointe & Msassyk // DC

Notes //

– It would appear that the character of Katherine, Clayface’s daughter, is a new one; however, there is a precedence in the form of Annie from the cartoon The New Batman Adventures. Similar to the events of this issue Clayface formed ‘Annie’ to allow him to act undercover, but the key difference is that at the end of the episode Annie sacrifes herself and is reabsorbed into Clayface prime. It’s not entirely clear to me how Katherine remained independent of Clayface here, but it is a far happier ending seeing her survive this ordeal.

– Karl Kerschl’s cover is another artistic triumph, but it does risk cluing the reader into Clayface’s surprise involvement.

– Anyone taking bets on whether Pomeline’s mother was the defence or prosecuting attorney at Olive’s mother’s trial?

–  Maps yelling “Detective Club…ASSEMBLE” was a great moment; I’m hoping for a “To me my Detectives” moment in our future.

–  Kyle is still a reluctant member of the Detective Club; when will he fully embrace his team?

Comics // Quick Review // Silver Surfer #14

It’s a testament to the storytelling power of the creative team behind this book that they can take the premise of Marvel’s Secret Wars event, an epic multi-verse spanning tale of universal destruction that has been years in the making, and find a way to develop a yet grander and more monumental tale. It’s the last days of the Surfer and Dawn have managed to escape the material universe and find safety in an extra-dimensional void. Two mysterious strangers, Glorian the maker of miracles and Zee, offer to help remake the universe that has been destroyed by God Doom; can putting things right be so simple?

Perhaps its not surprising that the power to reshape the Earth, and even the universe itself, might go to ones head and cause you to make dubious decisions, but this book has already done a great deal of background work that gives those choices a grounding in the history of these characters. Dawn takes on the sole responsibility to reform Earth as much out of sibling pride and insecurity as out of kind-heartedness, whilst the weight of Norrin’s Galactus-scale-guilt leads him to question the limits of his newfound power. Glorian and Zee, and the Shaper of Worlds too (the entity that forms the fabric of the white void itself), all seem like good guys eager to put right the broken world, but with this much power at their finger-tips and the clear dangers of temptation that already pull at the fringes of our heroes minds there is a worrying shadow cast over this issue.

As usual this issue is executed perfectly by storytellers Dan Slott and Mike Allred and the moral implications affecting our leads are wonderfully exploited before anything has really happened. How much do we really know of our world, how much could we remember to remake given the power and the need? These are interesting questions, which may well come into clearer focus as this story continues, but here the real interest is on the characters themselves and the people they want to save. Dawn’s request of Norrin, that he “bring all of our friends back first” is a curiously selfish one for a character normally so selfless, but it is not surprising given the circumstances. Her father’s similarly emotional request is further evidence that this level of power can give you potentially unhealthy priorities.

Allred’s art continues to deliver on every page; his inventive designs and layouts bring the book to life even when characters are walking around in a white lifeless void. Panels such as those of the Surfer forming suns and stars, and the people below erecting sculptures in his honour, are things of wonder. Laura Allred’s colour work is similarly magnificent with the aforementioned white void inhabited and surrounded by characters and places of vibrant life. The page of Norrin doing his good work bringing back the Plorpians and sandwich shops is a perfect combination of both art and colour; one that has the playful otherworldliness that has permeated this run throughout.

This book remains one of Marvel’s most consistent successes; every issue brings fresh humour and inventive science fiction tomfoolery without ever undermining the human drama that drives Dawn and Norrin’s relationship. Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s run on the Surfer is sure to go down as one of the best with the character and this issue is no different – if you have any interest in great storytelling and fun scifi drama then give this a read as soon as you can.

Silver Surfer Logo

Silver Surfer #14 // Storytellers – Dan Slott & Michael Allred / Colour Artist – Laura Allred // Marvel