Beating Back the Backlog: Batman’s Back, and Other Comics I Read Recently.

As a rule, I’ve read my monthly comic book periodicals in alphabetical order for, ooh, most of the last ten years. It’s the only sane way to make it through everything; hell, it’s the only way to get me to read a book I’ve preordered but I’ve stopped “feeling” two months ago (hello there, DOOM PATROL and WILDCATS). The side effect of this has always been that I’ll make it through BATMAN, definitely through THE MUPPET SHOW, maybe even all the way to TRANSFORMERS if I’m lucky, but often I’ll wind up with a backlog of something like a half dozen USAGI YOJIMBOs and some X-books laying around the place for half a year.

I spent the last two hours this Friday evening reading comics and I’ve only made it through “B.” Let’s see what I thought of all this nonsense.

Disney buys Marvel and Howard STILL has to wear pants. No justice in this world!

Warning: this cover is much more entertaining than the book's contents.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN QUACK #1 by Stuart Moore (writer), Mark Brooks, & Ray Height (pencilers)

Probably the last time I’ll give a post-Gerber HOWARD THE DUCK story a chance unless it’s a really crack-shot creative team. Stuart Moore’s a decent writer, but he’s not a good enough satirist to pull off what he’s shooting for here: a somewhat tired riff on the utterly brain-dead media of 21st century America, complete with the “kids rule!” crap we were being spoon-fed when I was young (and I presume they’re still spoon-feeding to kids on Cartoon Network, Disney and the like), 3-D movies & IMAX, hollow modern “everything sucks” cynicism, the sheer rank idiocy of what passes for news in this country, and more. It’s shaped likc a classic HOWARD THE DUCK story, but it’s not funny or clever or even quite modern enough, and Spider-Man’s presence and the slugfest that ensues bring it down even further. It feels like a recently dusted off inventory story, though the J. Jonah Jameson-as-mayor bit pegs it as being much more recent; the play on the “BACK IN BLACK” SPIDER-MAN “event” branding from three y ears ago, however, gives me some pause.

Mark Brooks’s Howard design is pretty awful; honestly, when Ray Height takes over halfway through (and really, how does THAT happen in a throwaway one-shot?) it either starts to look marginally more passable or I just got used to it, and I’m not sure which. I just thumbed through Gerber’s last HOWARD THE DUCK mini-series, back in 2002, and there was nothing wrong with Phil Winslade’s take on the classic Howard design. Likewise, I find Skottie Young’s manic take on the cover appealing, and I even after a fashion like Juan Bobillo’s bizarre design used in Ty Templeton’s mini-series from two or three years ago. Brooks’s take on the character sits in a disappointing, unappealing middle ground. The trick Gene Colan and Winslade always did was to honestly draw him as a funny animal character that just happened to be wandering around the Marvel Universe. Even the artists who drew him all disgustingly cutesy back in the 1990s did that, to — well, not good, but better effect. Brooks just draws him as a strange duck man. It really doesn’t work. Not at all.

Undercooked satire, undercooked Howard design, too much Spider-Man. Steve Gerber probably isn’t rolling in his grave; after all, he’s seen it all before. His corpse is probably just letting out a light sigh.

I'd forgotten how much fun the Eric O'Grady Ant Man was.

ANT-MAN & WASP #1 by Tim Seeley (writer & penciler)

This is more like it. A straightforward superhero romp in which Eric O’Grady, The Irredeemable Ant-Man — formerly of his own short-lived ongoing series (2006-2007) by Robert Kirkman & Phil Hester — is used as a pawn in A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics)’s plot to snatch an intriguing little MacGuffin out of the laboratory of one Hank Pym, former Ant-Man and current Wasp. I like that part of it is about Hank making amends for things gone wrong in the last several awful line-wide crossovers, and I love how much of a thoughtless cad Eric still is. His introduction, shooing a buxom young thing out his fire escape after he’s done with her with a fake superhero emergency, is spot on perfect. Yeah, he’s trying to make up for some of his mistakes and indulgences, too, but he’s too self-centered to ever really stick the landing, I think. And besides, part of the character’s appeal is that he’s kind of a lousy guy (though I suppose that’s the appeal to those of us who like him; his book DID get canceled in twelve issues). Seeley’s written a tight little yarn here, and his art’s gotten really, really good since I ragged on his G.I. JOE work back in 2003 — though a guy like Eric O’Grady does tend to give an artist some room to cut loose and play as far as reaction shots and acting goes. He also gives himself numerous opportunities to draw barely-clad girls, which hey, I’m not going to complain about. All in all, a solid little in-continuity adventure I honestly can’t wait to see the next issue of. Kudos!

Yep, that's Batman.

The end is only the beginning.

BATMAN: THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE #5 by Grant Morrison (writer), Ryan Sook, & Pere Perez (artists)
BATMAN: THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE #6 by Grant Morrison (writer), Lee Garbett, & Pere Perez (artists)
BATMAN AND ROBIN #15 by Grant Morrison (writer) & Frazer Irving (artist)
BATMAN AND ROBIN #16 by Grant Morrison (writer), Cameron Stewart, Chris Burnham, & Frazer Irving (artists)
BATMAN: THE RETURN #1 by Grant Morrison (writer) & David Finch (penciler)
BATMAN, INC. #1 by Grant Morrison (writer) & Yanick Paquette (penciler)

That’s not even all the Batman I’ve read tonight.

The neat thing about reading all that all in a row is that everything above adds up to one fluid continuing story. THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE leads into his miraculous reappearance at the end of BATMAN AND ROBIN #15, the announcement of Batman, Inc. leads into THE RETURN, and in that story he actually calls up Catwoman leading into BATMAN, INC. #1. Reading all this reminded me of being a teenager and finally reading KNIGHTSEND, the story of Bruce Wayne returning to take up the mantle of Batman after recovering from his wounds at the hands of Bane, in trade paperback.

There’s something schizoid about all these books in the same way KNIGHTSEND was; you’ll notice the final issues of THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE and Morrison’s run on BATMAN AND ROBIN have multiple artists. This is only really a problem in BATMAN AND ROBIN, where Frazer Irving’s very painterly art is replaced with a much more conventional look, and even then Stewart and Burnham’s styles are radically different, most notably in some of the minute details of Bruce-as-Batman’s costume and build. It works for the material, honestly, but it’s jarring when you read it.

It’s all really good stuff, and rewards rereading, but I think what I liked most was the start of the new ongoing series, BATMAN, INC. #1. It’s a fun jet-setting adventure with Batman and Catwoman breaking into a supervillain stronghold and jumping on the trail to find out who killed Mr. Unknown, Bruce’s top candidate to be the Batman of Japan. Despite the horrors of Lord Death Man attacking his prey with acid, it feels like lightweight fun after the crazy time travel with the Justice League guest stars and the mysteries of Simon Hurt and his connections to the Wayne family — stuff Morrison’s been building up since his proper run on Batman began four years ago.

My only major complaint: THE RETURN seemed awfully lightweight for five bucks. Neat little story, glad I picked it up, curious where that thread about the mysterious organization Leviathan is going to be picked up, but not worth five bucks.

The answer is more clever than you think.

I knew it! It's Jason Todd! No, wait ...

BATMAN BEYOND #4 by Adam Beechen (writer) & Ryan Benjamin (penciler)
BATMAN BEYOND #5 by Adam Beechen (writer) & Ryan Benjamin (penciler)

Aside from Bruce working through things I thought were settled back in BATMAN BEYOND: RETURN OF THE JOKER, these were actually pretty satisfying chapters of this mini-series, and I enjoyed them a lot more than I thought I would. I’m still not a fan of Ryan Benjamin’s art; it’s too sketchy and lightweight, and I keep wondering if it would benefit from a different inker. I liked the twist regarding the identity of the new Hush, especially how it tied in with the JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED season 2 finale that shed some extra light on Terry McGinnis’s true origins. I’m surprised, I’m actually starting to regret not signing up for the ongoing that’s spinning out of this. Not great, but an entertaining diversion, especially for fans of the series.

That rifle appears to be firing G.I. Joe lasers. (Okay, I know, they'd be blue.)

Guest starring everyone's least favorite character from JLI!

BOOSTER GOLD #37 by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis (writers), & Chris Batista (penciler)
BOOSTER GOLD #38 by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis (writers), & Chris Batista (penciler)

A book I consistently appreciate for its tone and banter, borrowed wholesale from Giffen & DeMatteis’s late 1980s glory days on JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL, and while Chris Batista is no Kevin Maguire, he does his best to live up to the legacy of wacky reaction shots and glorious overacting. The first issue wraps up Booster’s most recent hijinks in the past, hanging out with the late Ted “Blue Beetle” Kord right before the events of the first issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE QUARTERLY way back in 1990, while the second has him jaunting back to World War II to rescue a stray pint-size time traveler. I’ll be honest, I think Blue & Gold is getting kind of tired unless they actually do bring Ted Kord back from the dead. Booster jumping back and hanging out and getting into mischief with him is just kind of creepy, and while all involved in the story seem to agree, it doesn’t make it any less creepy for everyone to be well aware of it. The second story also brings back a JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL character, the Captain America parody General Glory, who works a lot better here as a broad caricature than he did back in the JLI days as Guy Gardner’s idol with a psuedo-serious story going on around him. I was actually dreading his appearance when I found out he was going to be in it, but I found myself chuckling all the while, especially at his poor kid sidekick Ernie, who is just the second in a long line, and is freaking out at every turn, because General Glory is just completely insane.

The verdict so far:  an ill-advised HOWARD THE DUCK revival aside, all really good stuff. I’d say the BATMAN BEYOND would be the least of the rest, but the twists, turns, and reveals elevated that material enough that I really, really wish I’d ordered the first issue of the ongoing just to see if Beechen could keep it going.