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Hot Ink — Batman/Doc Savage Special, Supergod #1, Strange #1

ComicsAlliance’s Chris Murphy reviews the biggest — and best — comic books hitting the shelves this week.

WHY DON’T WE STILL USE ZEPPELINS, ANYWAY? Batman/Doc Savage Special

Batman is a more interesting superhero when there are no superpowers to deal with. Put him in a situation where he’s got to face off against someone with inhumanly powerful strength or the ability to shoot lasers from their body and he’s probably going to come up with some brilliant solution involving some gadget that’s so far outside the realm of actual science it might as well be magic. But make him be a detective, make him match wits against an opponent he defeats with only his mind and his hands, and I’m almost always going to enjoy it.

In this week’s “Batman/Doc Savage Special,” writer Brian Azzarello and artist Phil Noto recall the character’s origins in a simpler world where Batman is only beginning his war on crime and the world’s heroes are ordinary men with exceptional skills and determination.

Azzarello and Noto aren’t simply resetting the DC Universe to an earlier point in time, though. This special issue marks the introduction to the world of “First Wave,” a mini-series to follow next year. It’s a setting that mixes the technologies of the modern world with the pulp sensibilities of the ’30s and the ’40s. A world in which zeppelins, planes with helicopter rotors and art deco night clubs mix with cell phones, 21st century cityscapes and twenty-four hour cable news. The “First Wave” world is presented in greater detail in the sketchbook at the end of the issue, including character descriptions of the other heroes of the world, each an ordinary human being with extraordinary skills.As for the issue itself, it’s enjoyable. Watching an early Batman still trying to figure out how to best execute his self-appointed mission, still carrying a pair of handguns, and not yet entirely comfortable working with others, is an interesting change. Seeing Bruce Wayne under the cowl again made me remember one of my favorite things I forgot about the character: his use of feigned drunkenness for purposes of intelligence gathering. The scene where he pretends to be completely loaded and walks up to Doc Savage, a woman in each arm, and then proceeds to goad the scientist-adventurer into a fistfight in order to figure out the man’s combat style is well-done. I would have thought it’d be my favorite moment in the issue involving Batman employing an overly elaborate fake out to achieve his goals.

But then I encountered a later scene where, in costume, Batman gropes a woman he’s holding hostage in order to provide the momentary distraction he requires to escape, which necessitates the inclusion of a panel consisting only of a close-up of a gloved bat-hand grabbing a fistful of breast. No sound effect, though, so that makes it tasteful. What’s most impressive is the interaction between Batman and Doc Savage. While Batman-Superman dialogue usually casts the two as more black and white opposites, arguing over idealism and pragmatism, here there seem to be more shades of gray. Each man is struggling to come to terms with their plans to fight crime and save the world, unsure of what might need to be compromised in order to ultimately accomplish good. On the whole, the “Batman/Doc Savage Special” presents interesting takes on familiar characters in a striking setting, and I’m looking forward to the mini-series.

LOOK, UP IN HUMANITY’S DEEP-SEEDED NEED TO CONSTRUCT OUR OWN SAVIORS, IT’S — Supergod 1

Avatar Press’ latest series by writer Warren Ellis released its first issue this week. “Supergod” plays with the idea that both superheroes and deities are presented as powerful figures that can be counted on to save us when we seem to have no hope of saving ourselves. Being that this is a book Warren Ellis is writing, neither superheroes nor religion come off in a positive light. And neither do people in general.

The first issue is a massive info dump, throwing pages of world-building backstory at the reader as a flashback presented by Simon Reddin, one of the last men left alive after something indefinite but very, very bad has happened. Ellis gives artist Garrie Gastonny several chances to depict scenes of destruction on a vast scale, and Gastonny proves to be pretty good at it.

“Supergod” 1 is the first issue in a five issue series, and I’m hoping at this point that the premiere is meant to bring the audience up to speed with the setting before launching into the story proper. Reddin’s flashback tells the story of how several governments worked toward the creation of superpowered individuals. In each case the creation was patterned after something the country worshipped: Krishna in India, an angelic being in Iran and a cybernetic reincarnation of Rastafarian messiah Halie Selassie created by a Somali pirate state.

The United States’ own program isn’t revealed until the end of the book, when Reddin makes a passing mention of a messianic figure living in an artificial small town who “always wanted to fight crime”. The message is clear enough. Superheroes are often referred to as a kind of modern mythology, as figures that are symbolic of powerful forces and ideas condensed into a familiar character that can then be used in stories over and over again, all the while building up a powerful resonance with the audience. But Ellis also brings up the darker side of mythology here. Wishing that powerful beings would come along and solve the many difficult problems we face can lead to a feeling of weakness and an inability to solve them on our own. What’s more, if such beings were to exist it’s likely they’d be fairly upset with us for making such a mess of things and then expecting them to clean it up for us.

I’m intrigued by the premise, but here it all comes off a little more like a lecture than I’d like it to. There are several interesting characters set up and I’m hoping future issues will follow their development more closely, as opposed to providing a running list of the body counts they rack up accompanied by drawings of explosions and things on fire.

ROOT, ROOT, ROOT FOR THE HOME TEAM, IF THEY DON’T WIN IT’S ETERNAL DAMNATION — Strange 1

Never before has the world been given a combination of the classic 1955 Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and the classic 1995 film “Sudden Death” starring Jean Claude Van Damme. Of course, it might be fairly be pointed out that, to my knowledge, never before has anyone asked. But thanks to the first issue of the four-part miniseries “Strange,” we now have it.

Stephen Strange, no longer the sorcerer supreme of the Marvel Universe, suddenly has a lot of free time on his hands. In this first issue of the four part series, written by Mark Waid with art by Emma Rios, he decides to catch a minor-league baseball game — or so it would seem, at least. It quickly becomes apparent that Strange is actually there to prevent a powerful demon from collecting on a longstanding contract and taking the souls of the players of the home team. The only way to
prevent this from happening is to make sure they don’t lose to the demon-possessed visiting team. Unsurprisingly, that’s going to mean Strange getting off the bench and setting foot on the playing field before it’s all over.

I ended up having a lot of problems with this one, unfortunately. To start with, Waid uses a pretty outlandish premise, involving Strange, who is no longer called “Doctor Strange” even though he is still a doctor, having to thwart a team of baseball playing demons and ultimately having to pinch hit for the home team when they’re down by a run with two outs in the ninth inning. This seems like a story screaming to be done in a tongue-in-cheek, don’t take yourself too seriously manner. At the same time, this is Strange’s first adventure after being stripped of his title and many of its accompanying powers, so he’s forced to deal with his diminished capabilities as a hero. He’s becoming an old man past his prime, and this is an idea that can work with comedy but usually demands a little bit more serious an approach. And the trouble is that “Strange” 1 ends up stuck in the middle of the two. It doesn’t really play the whole baseball against demons thing for laugh, but at the same time it isn’t played all that seriously, either.

Strange never seems worried about the fact that he’s clearly in over his head because he hasn’t really adjusted to having lost his old arsenal of complexly worded magic. At several points he needs help from the coach’s granddaughter, Casey Kinmont, a young woman who never knew she could do magic before Strange teaches her a spell. But he never seems to break a sweat over the situation he’s in. The entire series of events is approached as if it were a perfectly normal, ho-hum event. And to top it all off Rios’ art isn’t a good fit. Its cartoonish, manga-like look combined with Christina Strain’s bright coloring work looks good but creates none of the sense of magic or mystery I’d normally associate with a Doctor Strange book. The demonically possessed baseball players in particular seems to be a bad match for the style. And the action scene that concludes the issue, in which Strange runs the bases following a passed ball on strike three, is done in a way that makes it extremely confusing to tell what’s going on.

I’m left wondering why exactly this needed to be the story of the first issue in the series. There’s little indication of what Strange has been up to since leaving his role and little examination of how he’s been coping with his lack of responsibilities and powers. Kinmont’s introduction as a young girl more concerned with the modern world (because she’s Twittering about how much she hates being at a baseball game) seems to indicate she’ll be something of a sidekick for old man Strange to work with as the series progresses. But for what’s only set up to be a four part limited series, this one’s a very odd choice to lead off with.

ALMOST THERE

This week also marked the release of issue 7 of “Unwritten”, and while I’m still not completely sold on this one, I continue to get more optimistic about it. There are a number of Vertigo series I’ve enjoyed that took a few issues to get settled into what they eventually would become (I’m thinking in particular of “Fables” and “Transmetropolitan”). After delivering two of the best single issues I’ve read so far this year with its first and fifth issues, the central storyline of “Unwritten” feels like it’s right on the verge of hitting that point where all the characters and plot points are in place and the series really takes off. Also there’s a scene where a winged cat kills a man by knocking him over a second story railing, and that’s just awesome.

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