Comics // Review // Doctor Strange #2

Concise //

Writer Jason Aaron has a fun vision for the good doctor, something akin to a mystical special agent in a dangerously chaotic world, and it is incredibly well served by bottling the characters up in a familiarly unfamiliar place for an entire issue; the sanctum sanctorum. Chris Bachalo is an artist at home creating panels of mad, frenetic action and this issue gives him plenty of opportunities as things go from strange to worse during a magic-maggot hunt throughout the house. This issue is everything I want from a Doctor Strange book; high concept magical nonsense, funny scenes, and unknowable impending mystical doom – a great issue all round.

Doctor Strange #2 Cover

Spoilerful //

Despite the fun concept and some very neat scenes I had plenty of misgivings after issue one of this new Doctor Strange, fortunately this issue manages to avoid the things that disquieted me most (if only through ignoring them rather than correcting them), instead making way for an incredibly fun bottle issue. The creatures that escaped Zelma Stanton, librarian from the Bronx’s mind at the end of last issue have made their way into the corners and crevices of the Sanctum Sanctorum and Doctor Strange is temporarily inexplicably powerless to contain them. So instead Strange and Zelma have to traipse around the house trying to find and kill these ‘mind maggots’ by hand. It’s essentially a super simple plot, but it is fully capitalised on in both the writing and art as every room of the house holds innumerable unknowable terrors and souvenirs that Strange has captured or collected on his way throughout the magical cosmos.

The issue opens with a full page look at the exterior of the Sanctum Sanctorum accompanied by a storied history  across a number of caption boxes. As interesting as the history of the building was it at first seemed strange for there to be so much background up front, but once it became apparent that the issue would almost entirely take place within those four walls it made a lot more sense. Really this issue does a lot of great work to introduce the house as a character in and of itself, and establish Strange’s world; both the immediate (the house in which he lives) and the distant (the magical dimensions that he guards us from). This version of Stephen Strange that I can get behind; a man possessed of incredible esoteric knowledge and bravery, all used in the service of protecting a world that he is from but not of. Strange may have been a regular human once, but the life he leads and the way he leads it ensure that he is not quite a regular human anymore. This issue goes to great lengths to establish that fact: the litany of mystical illnesses that he has, his various dangerous and nightmarish possessions, his tastes in otherworldly cuisine, it all serves to make Strange seem…well, strange. It’s for this reason that the characterisation from last issue that painted Strange as some kind of magical James Bond who sleeps his way through mystical missions doesn’t sit well with me – besides making Strange into a poor Tony Stark stand-in it also makes him seem all too ‘normal’, a word that he should never be associated with.

Elsewhere this issue, it is worth pointing out how consistently funny it is; with none of the heavy handed magic bar banter getting in the way like last issue, the jokes here stem from the bizarre eldritch world that Strange lives in and the blasé normalcy that he has in the face of utterly incomprehensible things. The cat-calling snakes, the Escher stairway, that refrigerator, the fact that after a near death book to the face Zelma finds Strange casually doing some research as if he absent-mindedly forgot to check she was ok. Wong also raises a smile in his first scene with Zelma, when he dryly and efficiently deals with a bunch of mind maggots and the terrors of Stephen Strange’s fridge all the while preparing a light lunch for the doctor. It all makes for a fun trip through a very unusual world and if writer Jason Aaron can achieve this kind of tone going forward then it will ensure this book remains a pleasure to read.

The set up for the wider arc also continues here, but in a far subtler way than last issue’s old father time monologuing about debts yet to be paid and such. For most of this issue Strange’s powers were on the blink for some reason, and the magical safeguards within the house failed to stop the mind-maggots at every turn. Even the presence of those maggots, creatures “never been seen in our dimension in all of recorded magical history” as Wong explains, hints at the darkness from another world that is creeping into the Doctors realm, and the fact that Strange has no answers establishes a chilling sense of danger. similarly the pretty traditional almost warning scene that closes the issue was compelling, as the sorcerer supreme of another dimension arrives to try and tell Strange what is going on. That he doesn’t quite make it was to be expected (and along with his failed attempt to get a message out in last issue’s bonus story gives the impression that this guy is having a very bad day), but it is an effective way to presage the horror that is coming to get our hero.

I am a huge fan of Chris Bachalo’s art and this issue takes full advantage of his style. Bachalo excels in creating brilliantly busy panels that fill the background and foreground with all kinds of eye-catching details but never feel over-crowded, so having Strange and Zelma walking through weird rooms and magic corridors gives plenty of opportunity for inventiveness. The Sanctum Sanctorum is brought fully to life with an array of beautifully realised spaces, just looking at that chaotic living room or hell dimension behind a door gives a real sense of the dangers of the magical world. Wong’s confrontation with the refrigerator and mind maggots is another page that works well as we get a batch of quick panels that almost felt like the comic book equivalent of editing in an Edgar Wright movie.

This issue fulfils everything I was hoping this book could be: it explores the dangerous world of magic, establishes Strange as an almost otherworldly figure who can still have a little fun, and sets the stage for some upcoming epic darkness. The supporting cast of Wong, Zelma, and even the Sanctum Sanctorum are in place and Strange is ready to investigate this rising threat; if the book remains this fun and exciting then we could be in for a great run.

Doctor Strange #2 Panel

Doctor Strange #2 // Writer – Jason Aaron / Pencils & Colours – Chris Bachalo // Marvel

Notes //

– Strange full of mind maggots at the end there looked really super disturbing!

– I like the idea that the house has just rebuilt itself every time it has burned down.

Comics // Weekly Pull List // 04/11/15

New comics! Plenty of issue one’s this week (not sure that’s always a good thing though!)

Doctor Strange #2 – Issue one has the visual flair and complexity that you would expect from Chris Bachalo and the premise of Strange as a kind of mystical James Bond is a compelling one, but it wasn’t without it’s faults. Issue two should be a chance to see how this book functions

Joe Golem Occult Detective #1 – Mike Mignola has delivered some amazing work in the space between pulp action and supernatural horror and this book looks like it will be another one to add to the list. Just the setting, a flooded mid-20th century New York, is compelling enough, and the source novel (with collaborator Christopher Golden) is said to be excellent too.

Monstress #1 – I’ve been excited about this book since it was announced earlier this year. The creative team, writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda, did some solid work on X-23, but it is really the inspired concept and setting that makes me eager to read this: the story of a young warrior woman in a post apocalyptic world plagued with giant monstrous creatures.

Paper Girls #2 – This is a great concept and a well put together book, I’m interested to see how Brian K. Vaughan takes things forward (even if I can’t believe issue 2 is out already!)

Uncanny X-Men #600 – So this is it, Brian Michael Bendis’ X-Men run finally comes to a belated end. It’s no secret that I’ve found this run to be full of meandering, uninspired nonsense and some loopy characterisation at the best of times so I’m not sorry to see it finish. Previews have confirmed that the awful ‘young X-Men in modern times’ story is sadly not coming to an end, but hopefully some of Bendis’ other storylines get appropriate closure (rebel leader Scott for example).

Extraordinary X-Men #1 – I am trying to keep an open mind with this book; Lemire and Ramos are perfectly good creators and the line-up could be interesting. Alas, Marvel editorial’s insistence that mutants be sidelined in favour of the inferior Inhumans continues to rankle me, and this book seems explicitly designed to tell the story of why there will soon be no more X-Men stories.

Television // Idle Thoughts // Supergirl – Flying Out from HIS Shadow

Last week’s Supergirl pilot was a fun hour of quality super-heroic adventure. Taking a similar approach in both tone and visuals to The Flash (although looking like it has a slightly larger special effects budget) the show is bright and optimistic and anchored by a terrific central performance by Melisa Benoist who is by turns adorable, goofy, stoic, determined, righteous, and bullet-proof. The episode keeps up a pretty breathless pace but still manages to confidently introduce a number of key characters, deal with the origin story of a fully powered hero, and feature a couple of solid action scenes (including an excellent aircraft rescue). Picking up the colourful, fun mantle of the 80’s Supergirl movie and 90’s Lois & Clark show, rather than the moribund grey bleakness of Man of Steel, is the absolute right approach to take here and it is done so mostly with aplomb.

Perhaps most pleasing is that the show seems determined to embrace the idea that both Supergirl the character and Supergirl the show are important feminist icons that can be a positive influence on their respective worlds. It was pleasing to see the large number of complex female relationships on display with a broad range of female characters possessed of different backgrounds, political viewpoints, and intentions. This isn’t achieved through exclusion of male characters though and there is a healthy range of male viewpoints available too. Amongst the smart ways of bringing this choice to life are things like Supergirl going up against a misogynistic alien villain (even if there was some on the nose dialogue in these scenes, “Why? Because she’s only a GIRL!“), introducing the importance of Kara’s nuanced relationships to her sister and both her biological Kryptonian mother and Earth foster mother (even though both father’s are present neither speaks), and having apparent male big bad, the Commander, actually be revealed to be in the service of Kara’s aunt.

The show isn’t perfect though featuring as it does plenty of trite expositionary dialogue and way too much information for just one episode to process. None of that is a long term problem though, given that the show now has plenty of characters and plot threads to explore, plus a solid super-villain story engine in the abandoned space prison set up. No, the larger problem present in the pilot, that could yet be an issue for the show as a whole, is the in-universe existence of fellow Kryptonian Kal El. The writers of the show take the decision, whether to avoid confusion with the movies or to create a running joke, of having no character refer to Superman as Superman. Instead you get a barrage of him’s and his’s, plus a bonus order of ‘adjective-man’s, the big guy’s, and my cousin’s. By trying to avoid putting attention on Superman through not showing his face and not saying his name the show actually throws a massive amount of attention on him – the entire pilot is constructed in a way that kind of expects Superman to show up at the end and tell Supergirl he is proud of her (a service that ends up being offered by James ‘not Jimmy for no reason’ Olsen) which shouldn’t feel necessary at all. Kara is proud of herself, as are her closest friends and family, so establishing ‘big blue’ as an absent authority figure from whom one should seek approval kind of creates this strange and unhelpful God analogy.

It’s a difficult square to circle certainly, the show wants to acknowledge Superman’s existence, but doesn’t want focus pulled from Kara, or for there to be inevitable/constant questions of why Superman isn’t helping Supergirl out of bad situations. To that end there is a curious relationship established between Kara and Kal El where he is her cousin who knows she has powers, but doesn’t appear to have been in contact since he just deposited her at her new foster parents house (which seems pretty strange for a guy constantly searching for links to his homeworld). Yet there are countless other references to Superman, both obvious (Jimmy Olsen’s presence, the Kara as Clark Kent look, working for a media/news company, the shirt rip) and also obvious (both save a plane on their first outing, Jimmy references both saving a plane as if it wasn’t an obvious thing). These work to establish Supergirl as part of the ongoing Superman franchise, but they risk giving the impression that Supergirl is ‘just’ a female version of Superman rather than having her own identity and cool trademarks. Having some of this stuff in the pilot is fine, but if it becomes a regular thing throughout the season then the danger will be that Supergirl never becomes a character and show in her/its own right.

It seems like the writers have a foot in both camps; referring to Superman unusually often (by name or otherwise) to remind the audience that he is out there and could show up at any moment (see you in sweeps!), but also not using his actual name or giving him a direct contemporary relationship with Kara so that he stays at arms length and can be ignored if necessary. Maybe this is the right balancing act, one that gives the writers freedom to use the character if they want or never mention him again. Or maybe they will write an endlessly inventive list of ways to talk about Superman without saying his name. In either case my hope is that the show capitalises on the good work done in the pilot to establish a world without Superman, one that is built around the tremendous performance from Benoist and that has the potential to be both as compelling and as much fun as contemporary comic book shows like The Flash and iZombie.

Notes //

– I am a big fan of the way Supergirl lands from flight; it looks like there is a momentum to her landing and it gives the super-power a real physicality.

– I am not a big fan of super-powered shows/comics/movies having people apparently kill themselves when first revealing their powers to someone – surely just flying off the roof top is as effective as falling off it before flying, and it has the added benefit of not making someone you love think you just died (even if it’s only for a moment).

– I am constantly upset that superhero media very rarely shows superheroes saving people rather than fighting villains so it was nice to see the show open with an act of selfless heroism that wasn’t punching guys at a bank robbery; here’s hoping the show continues to include more of this.

Film // Inchoate Review // Spectre

Examining this awful cologne commercial of a movie.

Spectre Poster

Spoilers everywhere!

So, James Bond’s latest adventure from the mind of former cinematic auteur Sam Mendes has come out and about the only thing worth saying of it is that it is really really long! I consider Daniel Craig the best Bond character mostly because I find both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace to good spy action adventures. Truth be told I’m not really a fan of wise-cracking/silly/over-the-top/camp Bond of old so the remolding of the character as a ruthless espionage/murder machine was a big win with me (one that actually feels much closer to the original Casino Royale novel (although Fleming himself launched head long into camp silliness almost immediately afterwards)). Skyfall had a foot in both camps and just about came out ahead for me (even if references to crap like ejector seats and headlight guns had crept back into the franchise). Sadly it turns out that this wasn’t just Mendes giving a cheeky nod to the history of the franchise on it’s 50th birthday, but rather a taste of the absurd retro nonsense to come in Spectre.

History Repeating

Mendes constructs Spectre as a conscious reliving of ‘classic’ Bond moments; the problem is that even where the original moment being referenced is bad, Spectre‘s rehashes are without exception worse. There is not a single scene that betters the ones that inspired it; this is even true when Mendes is referencing himself.

Casino Royale climaxes with an old building collapsing so Spectre starting with the same must mean Spectre is going to continue the upward trend of escalating spectacle. Except the reason the collapsing building was compelling in Casino Royale is that it was directly tied up in the emotional arc of Vesper’s betrayal and subsequent sacrifice. Spectre just uses it as an opportunity for a consequence- and tension-less explosion. The sequence also includes a truly awful visual ‘joke’ about Bond landing on a sofa amongst the rubble that sets the tone both for the poor comedy to come and the return to campy ‘Bond is magically lucky at all times’ shennanigans. Sure we know Bond isn’t going to die any time soon, but the loose illusion that he lives in a functioning world and is in actual danger is what propels the action scenes forward. When he is cloaked in invulnerability from the very first action scene then it weakens the verisimilitude of his world and the sense of danger for the rest of the picture, fatally lowering the stakes of every action scene and in turn making everything that happens seem boring and pointless.

Similarly the scenes of Blofeld and a captured Bond seem designed to evoke both traditional Blofeld stuff as well as the scenes from Skyfall where Bond and Silva first meet. Silva is a genuinely frightening presence, with an air of spontaneous manic danger that is only partially mitigated by some relatively witty dialogue from Bond. In Spectre Blofeld lacks that sense of danger and his torture methods seem absurd. In an attempt to overcome the classic Bond ‘escapes before being tortured’ cliche Mendes actually has Blofeld drill into Bond’s skull – ok that’s an interesting enough idea, but the outcome of that brain drilling? Yeah, absolutely nothing, no effect at all. Once again Bond is magically invincible and all the possible tension of the scene evaporates. Also of note here is the weird choice to remove Hinx, Blofeld’s physical threat to Bond, a good hour before the film ends – one assumes this was designed to show that Blofeld doesn’t need muscle-men and can threaten Bond with only his superior mind, but as it turns out Blofeld is an utter imbecile so that doesn’t really work.

Rather than a friendly nod to the other Craig films this all feels like Mendes et al attempting to smash them into the ground and prove why Spectre is better. Except Spectre isn’t better, it is markedly worse with a near complete lack of tension throughout; the constant call backs just highlight the gulf in quality between these films.

True Love

Casino Royale is also used as a spring-board for the romantic core of Spectre; the relationship between Vesper Lynd and Bond is frequently invoked, primarily in a failed attempt to demonstrate why new character Madeline Swann is really Bond’s true love (Bond even literally discards the memory of Vesper, via vhs tape, whilst in Swann’s presence at L’Americain). The first meeting between Vesper and Bond took place on a fancy train over drinks and it is heavily alluded to when Swanning and Bond have drinks on a fancy train. Except the former lovers meeting involved a level of witty conversation and character insight that is unmatched by anything on display in the equivalent Spectre scene or indeed this entire movie. Vesper was quickly established as Bond’s intellectual equal, with an aversion to, but acceptance of, the necessity of his violent methods, and also as having a tortured past of her own. Swann’s characterisation follows a similar path, but in a truly lifeless, by-the-numbers way that offers very little compelling depth. Rather than a slow unpeeling of the layers of Swann’s character and emotional core (as per the Vesper story approach) she announces her entire Mr White’s daughter backstory in one monologue and then simply changes character completely as the scene in question requires it – at L’Americain she is grieving, angry, and entirely uninterested in creepy James Bond, but as soon as they are on the train she is flirtatious and sexually interested (even before the adrenaline high of the fight with Hinx). At Blofeld’s really awful crater-base (an uninspired revival of the hidden villain base trope) she suddenly declares that she is in love with Bond (a mere two days after meeting him!), but by London she isn’t interested in living a life with him after all. More startling is the speed and depth of Bond’s feelings for Swann; she doesn’t challenge Bond intellectually like Vesper did, nor does she follow a sympathetic life path like Camille Montes (his semi-spy semi-partner from Quantum of Solace). In fact in all the screen time they share they seem to talk only about being and/or being related to spies and/or murderers so as a viewer I have no idea what has driven this instant love connection. Why is this ‘Bond girl’ different to any other given that there is literally nothing that distinguishes her character-wise?

Quite frankly it would have been far more interesting to have Monica Bellucci’s character Lucia emerging as Bond’s true love – she is from a similar world to him and knows how it works, they share more chemistry in their two scenes together than every Bond/Swann scene that follows, and she is much closer in age to Bond. This could have been a smart move that explores Bond coming to terms with his age and making a more mature choice as he drives off into the sunset.

The uneven characterisation of Swann, and her clear positioning as a plot point for Bond rather than a character really gave me the impression that something else might be in the wings for the finale of the film. Could Swann have been playing the long game, stringing Bond along throughout the movie changing her character to what the scene and Bond required so that he wouldn’t worry too much about her motives? Could she have actually been revealed to be a villain herself, surprising Bond with a stab to the guts and the heart on that bridge at the film’s end? Alas not, this is the one trick from the Casino Royale playbook that Mendes doesn’t reuse. Instead Swann just makes no sense as a character because that’s how she was written.

Spectre Still 2

Spectre did what?

The film revels in highlighting Bond’s recent past, with several visual displays of the Craig villains Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Silva. Blofeld goes on to explain why these guys have been brought up so frequently, it turns out that he and Spectre have actually orchestrated everything that has happened to Bond in & since Casino Royale. This is a huge problem both in concept and execution. First of all, tying all of the recent villains into the machinations of Spectre shrinks Bond’s world immeasurably – MI6 doesn’t fight against all kinds of global threats it literally just fights Blofeld and his petty family motives. Similarly it gives the impression that over the last 10 years Bond has only been on 3 missions,there is no sense that he does work between the movies, that he is constantly on guard protecting us all. I guess he’s just been doing the paperwork all this time. Secondly it invites a rather unfavourable comparison for Blofeld himself – all 3 of those villains, even Dominic Greene with his piercing eyes and cold demeanour, were more threatening and compelling than boring old windbag Blofeld. Basically Blofeld’s various lieutenants have infinitely more interesting schemes and encounters with Bond; so let’s just see those interesting stories instead please. Finally, and most frustratingly, the writing takes the absolute laziest route to tying these villains into a single story – we are simply told that Blofeld did it. He never explains how he was behind them, or how they factored into his grander plan, or what he did after Bond took them out. In fact, besides several mug shots (mostly cheap-looking stills from in-movie scenes), their presence is totally wasted. They are invoked in an attempt to shock and scare the audience (“look, those scary guys were being controlled by this guy so he must be even scarier!“), but it is a heartless cheat. Maybe they would have gotten away with it if they had included some flashbacks featuring the original actors being given orders by Blofeld or offering some information about their part in Spectre’s plans, but doing it this way just comes across as lazy, boring and dissatisfying.

Quantum vs Spectre

The other negative comparison invited by bringing up those previous villians, and the inclusion of Mr White (who here has the admittedly good villain name The Pale King), is that Spectre with it’s inert boardroom and stupid ill-defined planning is nowhere near as compelling an organisation as Quantum was. All we see of Spectre is that boardroom, which is pretty nondescript and a toothless threat (Bond easily escapes despite the fact that Spectre knew he was there!), other than that Spectre as an organisation basically IS Blofeld – and all he does is have a load of people in a desert doing what, using social media or something and watching curiously specific live feeds from Bond’s super dull MI6 office. Quantum meanwhile is presented as a coalition of influential individuals collaborating on hundreds of nefarious schemes at once. Bond doesn’t just walk into a boring meeting room, he becomes part of an epic opera, has to use intelligence to surveil Quantum’s members, and engages in one of the most dramatic and beautifully constructed action scenes in the franchise’s history after coming face to face with Greene. As a threat Quantum has many powerful heads and plans that neither Bond nor the audience can fathom; Spectre just announces itself and offers nothing of interest other than empty words (“we did a bad thing in country x“, “our bad thing plans are on schedule“, “bad things up 20% this quarter“). And this isn’t even to mention the astonishing opening to Quantum of Solace wherein Mr White’s threat that Quantum have people everywhere is immediately proven true when M’s bodyguard almost kills her. This instantly establishes the level of danger involved, whereas in Spectre we know Bond is magically invincible and apparently one bullet can blow up an entire Spectre facility in a super-cheesy 80’s explosion – there is no threat in Spectre at all.

Spectre Still 1

Bond’s Seduction Technique is Intensely Uncomfortable & Sexually Threatening

After the distasteful and uninvited exploitation of a former victim of sexual violence in Skyfall Bond seems to have changed tact in his seduction of women – now the first thing he says to them, with an unbroken stare and a serious, ashen face, is that he is a murderer and that their husband/father is dead, possibly by his hand. He then leaves plenty of time for that to sink in BEFORE he tells them that he is a good guy and wants to protect them. Think about that for a moment, some guy turns up and tells you that he murders people and then he just stares at you for a bit. How insanely creepy is this behaviour! I guess I’ll sleep with him then.

Lighting and the Outfits

Perhaps the only redeeming features of the film are how nice it looks most of the time. The costume and set decorating departments have done some truly excellent work, especially in their efforts to capture a period feel. As has the lighting team; the train sequence is a particular highlight on all counts (and also features literally the only good action scene in the movie). Monica Belluci’s arrival at her assassin infested home is also a beautifully constructed moment (even if it does lead directly into more creepy-sex Bond).

Every outfit was good except this one
Every outfit was good except this one

Other fun things:

– Police in London will instantly arrive at the scene of a helicopter crash, but will put up police tape before helping victims out of the wreckage

– Pierce Brosnan left his speed boat under the ruined MI6 building for some reason

– What was Bond’s plan when he stole that plane to follow Hinx and the kidnapped Madeline Swann? Swann’s car is driving along a cliff top road and Bond attempts to shoot the driver through the window – if that shot had actually killed the driver then the car plummets to the bottom of the valley killing Swann, excellent work Bond.

Spectre seems to have about 18 endings; wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have Blofeld at large with a desire to get revenge on Bond instead of a further 30 minutes of lifelessly running around London rehashing better bits of Skyfall?

– More than ever Bond really doesn’t care about collateral damage and it is distracting and upsetting. He is in a helicopter over a crowded square in Mexico City but will attack the pilot and almost crash it into the ground (and will also throw people out of the craft into the crowd below possibly killing innocent civilians); he flies a plane through some persons house whilst they might have been in it; he let’s buildings blow up in the street and walks off. Bond has always been a bit reckless but some of this stuff is sheer madness, as if he is willfully trying to kill innocent people. How are we supposed to root for a hero who behaves like this? Maybe Bond is the actual fucking bad guy.

– When Swann chastises Bond for letting Blofeld’s men follow him to her it actually seemed for the briefest moment like the movie might have had a smart scene planned where Bond admits that this indeed was the case and that he was using her as bait. Instead he really is just that stupid.

– The meta-gag about Bond not wanting a hand from Tanner off the boat was the funniest thing in the movie.

– Why would Q go into the field to bring Bond back rather than Moneypenny (or just calling him or whatever)? Also, why was Moneypenny totally sidelined by the movie as soon as it was revealed that she was seeing someone else – as if the film was on Bond’s side in thinking that she should be eternally available for his flirtation and objectification and as soon as she chooses to move on from him she is no longer worth spending time with.

– Wouldn’t an ending where M and C work together using the combined power of big data and old fashioned ground work to succeed have been more interesting than the guy who seemed like a villain from his first scene turning out to be a villain? Also, must every Bond film spend time exploring the idea that the 00 programme is obsolete and some new thing is better? What the hell was C going to do with all that surveillance data once he had it, presumably he would still need agents to go do the capturing/killing? Emails can’t arrest terrorists! It doesn’t make sense!

Comics // Review // Batgirl #45

Concise //

This issue lets the plot take a mostly back seat in favour of some intense emotional beats;  Barbara’s best friend Alyssia is about to get married so Babs has to balance being the best ‘best woman’ ever and dealing with a romantic figure from her own past. It is a solid read with some great continuity and lovely moments, but it also continues the recent trend of a somewhat aimless Batgirl. As ever, though, the art is top notch and this issue benefits from some even more gorgeous colouring than usual.

Batgirl #45 Cover

Spoilerful //

Since the end of the opening arc for this new Batgirl run things have felt ever so slightly off. Batgirl #35 started the story of Babs settling into her new surroundings, introducing some new supporting players, and facing off against a mysterious villain operating through hired guns. It was artfully put together – the story was tightly paced and capitalised on a traditional villain-of-the-week structure to keep the action flowing whilst building up that central mystery. Since the conclusion of that story in Batgirl #40 there hasn’t really been much of a driving narrative behind Babs’ adventures; instead the approach has switched to a far more nebulous storytelling structure that is primarily concerned with the soap operatic elements of Barbara’s life. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, in fact it is refreshing to see a superhero book spend some more time on the human drama behind the masks, but it has been accompanied by a lack of over-arching story in recent months that has left the momentum of the book stalling a little.

Alyssia’s renewed prominence in the book has been very welcome, and if there has been an arc for the last few issues it is most probably the run up to Alyssia’s nuptials. The wedding scenes offer a number of really lovely moments, and are an important event for comics in general. Alyssia and Jo’s love, and its celebration at their wedding, is treated as any other characters would be, just as it should be. It is great to see the creators genuinely embracing and supporting these characters and providing a welcome representation of non-hetronormative love in such a mature and positive way. The wedding is also easily the strongest part of this issue with some great scenes between most of the character groupings – Alyssia and Babs have a chance to re-affirm their best friends status with some excellent Bab’s as super-maid-of-honour moments, Dinah makes an appearance, and there is some strong work establishing the playful, budding romance between Babs and Luke. It is also worth calling out the page where Alyssia and Jo make their vows as it is absolutely beautiful in art, dialogue, and sentiment.

I often lament the fact that superheroes rarely get to just enjoy the good times (super villains have an annoying habit of gate-crashing weddings, anniversaries, and graduations) so I was really pleased to see that the ’emergency’ this issue was one born of human drama rather than superhuman tomfoolery. Former love Dick Grayson recently returned to Babs’ life after spending his ‘death’ running super secret spy missions for the last few years (there must be something going around – see also Kurt in Black Canary!). Unfortunately the nature of his non-emergency and it’s place in this issue is quite underwhelming – Dick really lives up to his name here. Why he felt the need to drag Babs’ away from both her best friends’ wedding and a date with her new boyfriend for basically no reason at all is beyond me. I appreciate that he is dealing with some tough ‘feels’ right now and is looking to reconnect emotionally with Babara, but his poor timing here just comes across as jealous churlishness rather than charming and soulful.

The flashback to an earlier time is actually a great little moment (I’m especially fond of having the contemporary dialogue come from our heroes’ younger selves) serve as it does to establish the emotional history for Babs, but it felt totally out of place. This issue is all about looking forward, Alyssia and Jo are embarking on a life together, Barbara and Luke are developing their relationship and the presence of Dick, with his melancholic flashback, is designed to demonstrate how Babs’ is letting go of the sad anchors of the past and embracing that forward momentum towards a better life. But this is an inorganic and quite on-the-nose way to bring up those feelings; Dick appears out of nowhere and almost bullies Babs into joining him on a nothing adventure. He comes across as the superhero equivalent of a massive jerk ex who can always charm you to drop what you’re doing and head over to his place in the middle of the night, you know they’ll only hurt you, but you can’t stop yourself. This is presumably the intention of his characterisation in this issue, but I don’t want to read about a Babs who would fall for that trick – she went through a dark spell a few issues back and this behaviour would sit well there, but with everything in her life back on track and especially on a day so important to her best friend it doesn’t ring true to me that she would drop everything and everyone for this guy. Alyssia even calls out Babs’ poor behaviour, “I mean I know she has a habit of leaving abruptly, but I didn’t think she’d do it today“, and I found myself really disliking Barbara’s decision to put a flirtatious romp above her friend (and boyfriend’s) happiness and I don’t think that was the intention. It really felt like the entire Dick Grayson side-show was an excuse to get Babs in the Batgirl costume for a page or two whilst mercilessly hammering home that Babs wants to move on from the past.

But all of this, the goodness of the wedding and the badness of Dick Grayson, doesn’t really speak to the current underlying weakness in the book. Without a strong central plot for this arc there have been a number of brief adventures and a sidelining of elements of the relaunch that had previously been a part of what made it so great. Characters like Nimah and to a lesser extent Qadir have dropped from view, whilst potential love interests like Jeremy and Liam were cast off the moment Luke arrived. It may be that this was always the intention, and that those characters were introduced only as red herrings for the villain reveal at the end of the first arc, but it is still disappointing as it undermines the living breathing Burnside world that set Babs’ stories apart from the rest of the Bat-family. Even Burnside itself, like those other characters, has become a background in the most traditional sense too; the strong sense of place, of Burnside being a different part of Gotham with it’s own denizen’s, heroes, and villains isn’t quite there now. Babs’ school work isn’t part of the story anymore, her relationships with Dinah and Frankie aren’t driving the plot either (Dinah’s absence makes sense given that she has her own book again, but why isn’t Frankie in this more), and she isn’t working towards anything in paricular. Instead we have seen a relatively low-key set of disconnected multi-part stories. Exploring how her father’s regrettable new role as giant-robot-police-Batman and her best friends wedding affect Babara are interesting topics, but without a strong narrative structure that ties them into Babs day to day life they haven’t been as compelling as perhaps they could have been.

Even visually the book has set aside some of it’s great hallmarks – those wonderful page layouts from early in the book where Babs’ remembers and pieces together clues and panels that integrated modern technology into Babs’ world (text messages, emails, playlists, etc.) have been featured far less frequently. None of this is fatal, and the book is still a good read each month, but it definitely feels like the strong artistic and narrative vision which propelled the first arc has been on a lower setting recently. If this issue came at the end of a breathless arc then it would be a very refreshing chance to catch a breathe and join the characters revealing in the emotional climax of Alyssia and Jo’s wedding. Coming as it does after a number of relatively slow, relatively low stakes, and essentially disconnected stories, the impact of the slow down is lost a little to the point of almost stalling.

This is very much still a fun comic to read and my misgivings with the general pace and feel of the recent storytelling shouldn’t be taken as an argument not to read it. Babs Tarr’s art remains absolutely delightful on every page and Stewart & Fletcher are still writing some engaging, witty dialogue (that bow tie conversation is really quite charming), but it’d be disingenuous not to call out the shift in pace that the book has undergone recently. Even if some of that early magic has dissipated, everything still exists in this book to make it truly great once again; this creative team is incredibly strong and the world they have crafted has the potential for more amazing comic books. I have great hope and no doubt that they will recapture what made this book so good.

Batgirl #45 Panel 1

Batgirl #45 // Writers – / Artist – Babs Tarr / Colourist – Serge Lapointe // DC

Notes //

– Serge Lapointe is on amazing form this issue, with beautiful colouring in every panel. The various hues of pink give the issue a distinct feeling of the romantic backdrop, but Lapointe isn’t afraid to throw in bold colour changes to add drama and impact (the opening page Babs’ to the rescue panels, for instance, do a great job reminding of Batgirl in action – a choice that immediately raises the stakes of every small crisis).

– It’s a great touch having Dinah and her band Black Canary playing the wedding and singing some 80’s power ballads! It’s cool to see a Babs Tarr version of Lord Byron, Ditto, and Paloma too.

– What with the questionable cameo of Red Robin in Gotham Academy #11 as well as Grayson here I’m beginning to wonder if there is an editorial mandate to shoe horn unnecessary appearances into books as part of a miss-judged cross-promotional campaign. (I appreciate that this is a staple of superhero books but it rarely feels as forced as it has in recent DC books)