Year-End // A Handful of Amazing Things I Discovered in 2015

It’s been a while since we lived in the year 2015 and most ‘best of’ lists have long since been and gone. Alas, given my recent blogging hiatus I hadn’t gotten around to putting together any thoughts on the year. Until now!

The following is a pretty random selection of media that I really enjoyed over the year; there were plenty of other films, comics, and movies that I enjoyed too, but these are the ones that had that little extra personal impact. It’s not ordered by preference, or category, or chronology, and some of it predates 2015 and I just happened to encounter it then. Simply put, all of this stuff left a real impression on me and gave me a lot of pleasure; it’s likely it’ll be with me for a long time.

// The DC Comics of Brendan Fletcher w/ Becky Cloonan, Cameron Stewart, Babs Tarr, Karl Kerschal and Annie Wu

It’s wrong to single out the work of writer Brendan Fletcher alone over his many highly talented collaborators, especially given that it’s impossible to know who contributes what, but the various works Fletcher has been involved in this year managed to do something that few other books have done in almost a decade: get me excited about DC comics again. Batgirl and Gotham Academy have delivered some great characters and moments over the year as have the more recent travails of Black Canary. These are superhero books that have found a way to be refreshing, often through stories that feel like wonderfully spontaneous adventures with a bunch of good friends. At their best these are some of the most fun reads on my pull list.

// The Art of Babs Tarr

Batgirl #37 Pixtagraph (Babs Tarr)

It seems like I’ve spent a lot of 2015 discovering incredible new talent, and the ‘list’ of my favourite artists is markedly different at the end of the year compared to what it was at the start. Chief amongst those changes is probably my quick and all encompassing infatuation with the art of Babs Tarr. Every issue of Batgirl has been an absolute joy to look at and the variant covers and prints that Tarr has produced have all been just as wonderful. Characters look fun, wear modern fashion, and live in a relatable world; these are people I want to be and hang out with, even when they’re fighting tigers or super-villains, or each other. There is a playful and inviting warmth and a contemporary feel to Tarr’s art that captures a welcome shift in the way superhero comics are written and drawn.

// Elementary

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Although I am a fan of Holmesian stories I took a pass on this show when I first heard about it due in no small part to my memories of Johnny Lee Miller as Crash Overide in Hackers. My surprise was significant then when I finally did watch the first episode and it was a top notch procedural with a tremendous interpretation of, and performance of, the great detective. The show leans heavily into the drug addiction elements of the Holmes cannon and finds a great deal of compelling pathos in it. The weekly cases can suffer some of the problems typical of procedural shows (the most famous guest actor usually did it, the plots tend to swerve at the same time each episode, etc.), but the ever engaging performances by Miller and Liu, and the character dynamics at the heart of the show keep it very enjoyable throughout. When I finally started watching this show I just couldn’t stop; I ended up watching 3 seasons in about 3 weeks. I even gave dvds of the show as more than one Christmas gift. Plus the New York brownstone set is a place I would love to live in!

// The Steve Jobs Script

'Steve Jobs' film - 2015

The direction was perfunctory and the performances were excellent, but it was the script for Steve Jobs that elevated the film to incredible status. I’ve long been a fan of Sorkin’s work, and for all his problems he can still write dialogue like few others ever have. The fact that the structure of the movie essentially creates 5 ongoing conversations that take turns for 90 minutes means that there is sparkling dialogue everywhere; it is non-stop brilliance, full of smart, funny, piercing, and endlessly quotable lines. There’s a fair argument that it is more of a play than a film,but for me that is absolutely what makes the experience so amazing.

// They’re Not Like Us

They're Not Like Us #3 Panel

I stumbled upon this comic mostly because the striking cover featured the intriguing opening panel of the story, and I am so grateful I picked it up. This book has been the most interesting, compelling, and thrilling ongoing I have read all year – building up from a simple troubled teens with powers origin to a broader, darker rumination on society’s response to a youth culture it does not understand. The slower pace has allowed characters to organically reveal themselves and the sense of paranoia and oppression to really take hold. All the while the tremendous art/colouring from Simon Gane  and Jordie Bellaire has helped to drive the story and provide memorable & innovative demonstrations of superpowers in use. I’ve been lamenting the lack of a good mutant outcast X-book for years, and then secretly this book answered my prayers.

// The Art of Mike Del Mundo

Elektra #11 Panel

Elektra was a book that ultimately felt more like a dramatic rendering of the main characters psyche than a straightforward narrative and that was thanks to the spectacular art by Mike Del Mundo. Del Mundo manages to somehow create art that is both dream like and grittily detailed, and his worlds are both epic and intimate. Every book I’ve read that he has drawn has undoubtedly been elevated by his incredible artwork. It’s also worth noting that the various covers that Del Mundo has worked on have been ingenious and marvelous without exception. I’ve spent endless hours staring deep into Del Mundo’s art; each panel offers a wealth of beauty and detail that reward your attention.

// All New X-Men #37

All-New X-Men #37 Panel

I’ve been quite vocal about my disappointment with the recently concluded X-Men run from Brian Micheal Bendis, but this issue was an exception that genuinely blew me away. Telling an incredibly simple story, Emma Frost takes young Jean Grey on a training mission to Madripoor, this book managed to deliver deeper character, world building, action, and drama than the entirety of the rest of Bendis’ run. Featuring cinematic art from Mike Del Mundo the book has it all: outstanding action, fun moments, funny lines, sharply observed characterisation, and a hidden but palpably warm heart in Emma’s secret devotion to keeping Jean safe. X-Men comics have been in a sorry state for years (and continue to be so), but this issue really shows what you can do when you combine those merry mutants with tremendous art and on point writing.

// Killjoys

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This series marked the start of the Syfy channel’s return to making actual sci-fi, and what a return it was. Killjoys is pure fun, a breathless action adventure that follows three good-guy-bounty-hunters as they work on ostensibly unrelated warrants, but it all becomes entwined in both the personal histories of our heroes and the fate of this particular corner of the galaxy. The show puts together a rewarding blend of character- and plot-led drama, comedy, spectacle, and action, all along side some very effective world building. There are plenty of cliche breaking twists and some really smart done-in-one stories, and by the time the season finale rolled around I was entirely hooked by the questions at the heart of the show’s universe and charmed by its likable characters.

// The Age of Adaline

Film Review The Age of Adaline

I’m a bit of a soppy romantic at heart and also a fan of magical-realism-meets-star-crossed-lovers stories (a surprisingly common genre!) so this movie is pretty much made for me. The story and style of the film seem to take their lead from the underated Fincher classic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, even down to the lighting and framing of many scenes, but the elegance of the execution here ensures that Adaline never comes off as being derivative. Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to actual acting with this film, and he is good, but the film’s real secret weapon is Ellen Burstyn how manages to convey a lifetime of love and regret in her scenes with her mother Blake Lively. It also has to be said that Lively herself does an excellent job holding the film, and her performance as the stoic Adaline is full of masterfully delivered small moments of introspection and aching. Although the script could probably have done with a little more oomph at times, this is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acte, modern fairy tale that left me positively aglow with all kinds of emotions by the end. Also the costume design was absolutely on point!

// Master of None

 

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Aziz Ansari’s Netflix sitcom took me completely by surprise, both in it suddenly existing at all and in how good it was. I like Ansari from PNR and his live shows, but he can sometimes lose me when he gets deep into a celebrity story or Randy performance. Fortunately Master of None is brilliantly funny and Ansari is an excellent lead. The real strength, though, lies in how it consistently offers a smart, incisive alternative view on ubiquitous sitcom material. The second episode takes time out of the comedy to tell a wonderfully touching story of immigrant family life without ever becoming saccharine, and the way the show positions modern dilemma’s like wanting to spend time with the family that you love but also wanting your own life in a sympathetic relatable way whilst still finding the funny aspects of the situation. Over the 10 episodes there are some touching moments, some profound moments, and many many funny moments.

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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)

Comics // Weekly Pull List // 28/10/15

Some of my favourite books are out this week, plus an interesting new comic from trusted hands.

Weekly Pull List 28.10.15

Art Ops #1 – I know very little about the nature of this book, but the presence of Mike and Laura Allred on art and colouring duties made this worth a blind purchase. The contents look as great as you would expect and the idea of crazy art based hijinks make this a book I’m looking forward to reading.

Batgirl #45 – Babs Tarrs’ art remains a constant source of enjoyment on this book even if this second arc has lacked the narrative strength and clarity of the previous one. This issue promises some big emotional moments though so hopefully will regain a little momentum.

Prez #5Prez really is one of the best political stories out there right now, comic book otherwise, as the pretty outlandish concept of random teen gets elected president by fluke has been turned into an engine for some biting satire. With the brilliant Ben Caldwell returning to pencilling duties this should be another great issue.

The Spire #4 – Drawing on traditional concepts from fantasy, political, and mystery stories The Spire has really grown into a tremendously compelling book. And that’s not to mention the wonderful art from Jeff Stokely!

They’re Not Like Us #9 – I’ve written a lot about this book on here, and with good reason, everything in it from the writing to the art to the colouring to the very concept is just excellent. This really is one of the best books available.

Comics // Pull List // July Comics

With DC’s underwhelming Convergence finally over and Marvel’s Secret Wars delivering some great titles this is looking likely to be another good comics month. Here’s a few of the books I’ll be picking up:

Prez #2 / Mark Russell, Ben Caldwell

The story of how Beth Ross becomes the first teen president is one of accident, corruption, and serendipity. It’s also full of pretty unusual characters and situations, and all of it is drawn with the elegant beauty of Ben Caldwell’s pen. This is a book that could go either way; get mired in the social commentary or deliver on the promise of fun hijinks in the oval office (or even perfect a blend of the two).

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Weird World #2 / Jason Aaron, Mike Del Mundo

I’m still not sure what to make of this book, telling the tale of a lost warrior on a truly mad journey, as it makes for an exciting if confusing read. The nature of weird world, and even the history of the central character, remain something of a mystery, but the book is full of epic adventure and artist Mike Del Mundo continues to outdo himself with every page.

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They’re Not Like Us #7 / Eric Stephenson, Simon Gane

The most intense and compelling comic coming out at the moment reaches it’s penultimate chapter, at least for the first volume, and the writing, art, and colouring remain as impressive as ever. This is a book unlike any other right now, it is well worth reading.

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E is for Extinction #2 / Chris Burnham, Ramon Villalobos

Spinning out of perhaps the greatest X-Men story ever (bold claim!) this Secret Wars title immediately and stylishly established it’s premise and core narrative – Charles Xavier died when Cassandra Nova entered his mind; X years later and the X-Men are has-beens whilst Magneto’s school is the centre piece of a mutant utopia. This book is almost as outlandish and inventive as Morrison’s run was with new ideas and smart innovations on every page. It is frantic, chaotic, and otherworldly in all the right ways.

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Batgirl Annual #3 / Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, Mingjue Helen Chen, Bengal, Ming Doyle, David Lafuente

Between the core book, the Endgame tie in, and the recent Secret Origins it feels like there’s been a whole lot of Batgirl lately, and thanks to the stellar creative teams involved that is definitely a good thing. Fletcher and Stewart are still on board for this annual, sadly though series regular artist Tarr once again steps aside to let a number of artists, including Endgame’s Bengal, pick up the reigns (the artists in question are all good, but I’m always happy to see more of Tarr’s work).

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Comics // Review // Black Canary #1

Concise

Dinah Lance sets out into the world once again, this time joined by new friends in the form of her mates from hot new ticket Black Canary! This is a fast paced, well characterised, brilliantly realised first issue that introduces new characters, an entirely new corner of the DCU, and new challenges for a much-loved character. The storytelling is wonderfully strong, in dialogue, action, and art, and the stage is set both metaphorically and literally for a long, hard and very rewarding tour.

Black Canary #1 Cover

Spoilerful

For me writer Brendan Fletcher has heralded a reinvigoration at DC. Collaborating with great artists and writers like Babs Tarr, Cameron Stewart, Becky Cloonan, and Karl Kerschl, Fletcher has stewarded two smart, young skewing but suitable for all ages books with wonderfully diverse casts into the must read spot every month, even as the rest of the DC line has stewed in fetid reboots and lukewarm continuity battles. As well as telling action packed and interesting stories Gotham Academy and Batgirl have developed strong female lead and support characters, including in the latter, former Black Canary herself Dinah Lance. In Batgirl Dinah was in a tough time of her life – after her apartment burned down (thanks to Babs Gordon) Dinah was crashing on her friends’ couch, partying hard, and singing in the band Ashes on Sunday. In Batgirl #40 Dinah and Babs fixed their fractured friendship, but this was quickly followed by the announcement that Dinah would be going on tour with her new band.

On that tour Dinah has taken to being called D.D., for the time being at least, whilst her new band has taken the name Black Canary so I would anticipate (and hope) this book will be as much about her band mates Lord Byron, Paloma Terrific, and Ditto as Dinah herself. The last of those names (and aren’t they all just great rock star names), Ditto, belongs to a young mute acoustic guitar player who appears to have a few secrets of her own. Ditto has a magical ability to craft complex music from her guitar without the aid of any technological enhancement; this power is reminiscent of Dinah’s own vocal abilities so there may also be a mentor-mentee relationship in the offing. In fact Ditto ultimately reveals the key threat at the end of the book, a group of alienoid creatures that have come to capture her for some as yet unknown reason. What exactly is the deal with Ditto’s past looks set to be a major plot point, and it certainly looks like a compelling one, but I am also hoping we get to spend some more time with the band, and the world of clubs and gigs. These characters and locations are so well realised so quickly that I hope we really get to know them well.

Even though this makes it seem like the book will be all about fighting and super heroics Fletcher actually goes to great lengths in the opening pages to demonstrate the toll, both physically and emotionally, that constantly fighting can have. Dinah is a little bruised and battered, on top of the physical demands of touring every night  she has taken a few licks from the bad guys and from the press as most of her gigs have ended in out of control brawls. The rest of the band, in particular Byron, are worried that this may have a negative impact on their ability to stick to their contract with the record label, so Dinah agrees to keep things calm. Except for those damn alienoids. Much of Dinah’s arc in Batgirl was about finding her new normal, a way of living that she could be comfortably in. Here she appears to be on the right track, with the right friends, but like for most of us things are never that easy to change.

Annie Wu is so perfect for this book; her tough, realistic, beautiful art style brings exactly the sense of dangerous punk atmosphere to Dinah’s new world, and the detail in every panel is simply brilliant. The art works to tell and enhance the story on every page, but touches like the tour bus heat signatures and the gig flyer add an extra something; it is clear from every panel that a lot of care and attention has gone into crafting this book. Lee Loughridge is also on excellent form with some electrifying use of colours throughout – particularly in the ‘Musical Marvel or Menace?’ streaming video panels, as well as when the band are introduced in their entirety at the final show (Dinah in the spotlight is perfect).

This is a strong début for a book with a high pedigree to live up to; the art is expertly on point, the narrative and characters and interesting and compelling, and the entire thing feels fresh and unique. The team have put together another book with strong and diverse female characters at the fore, but it feels different to what has come before. The issue ends with a playlist of things to come – I can’t wait to hit play.

Black Canary #1 Panel

Black Canary #1 // Writer – Brendan Fletcher / Artist – Annie Wu / Colours – Lee Loughridge // DC

Notes and Observations:

  • Black Canary continues to exhibit a rich visual language similar to that of Batgirl and Gotham Academy, by which I mean they incorporate diegetic elements such as report cards, media players, fanzines, notebooks, and selfies. These elements are really well integrated and tend to serve two main functions; they advance the plot by giving us an insight into the characters mood or current activity, and they look cool and contemporary. It is arguable that they might age the books quite quickly, and there is no doubt that they all feel very ‘now’, but I am very keen on the approach, not least because they again serve to create a shared sense of ‘world’ between these books.
  • Gotham Academy’s Heathcliff is the road manager for Black Canary in this book; this is a great, organic development for the character (he was a major Ashes on Sunday fan) and some welcome connective tissue between the two books. I was concerned by the appearance that Heathcliff went from being a person of colour in Gotham Academy to a white character in this book, but Brendan Fletcher has described this not as a race change, but rather being down to the fact that “Lee [Loughridge]’s approach to color is super stylized“. Whilst I appreciate Fletcher’s candour and the artistic intent here I do think it ‘appears’ that there has been a change, intentional or not, which I find unfortunate.
  • The record label contract is mentioned a few times, but I don’t think the label itself gets named; is it too early to suspect there might be something fishy going on there? After all, as good as Ashes on Sunday were it seems pretty convenient that a major deal would fall into Dinah’s lap (plus there is a magic guitar player in the band). Maybe I’m just reliving Jem/Josie/Wayne’s World, but can record execs ever be trusted?!

All art belongs to the copyright holder