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Hot Ink — Detective Comics #861, Batman and Robin #7, Kick-Ass #8, Robocop #1

MEETING COWL TO COWL – Detective Comics 861/Batman and Robin 7

Bat crossovers aplenty this week, as Batman makes a guest appearance in Batwoman’s “Detective Comics” and she returns the favor in “Batman and Robin.” I could take this opportunity to make a reasoned analysis of the flaws and merits of each book. I could point out that these are two talented creative teams working on characters that I enjoy reading and argue that, as a result, we’re all winners.

Or, unwilling to continue with my life until all things I encounter are properly ordered based on a subjective determination of quality, I could demand that one book be declared the superior of the two, and arbitrarily force unforgiving competition until a victor emerges. Because that last option allows me to throw around all sorts of artificially exaggerated bile and present the review in a dumbed down “these guys versus those guys” narrative, let Bat-Off commence!

First category, artwork. I’m getting this one out of the way right off the top because this is not a competition to determine whether Cameron Stewart’s art for “Batman & Robin” or Jock’s in “Detective Comics” achieves higher marks. Rather it is a contest to see which disappoints me the least. Sort of like championship bull-riding, the most these guys can hope for is to make as good a show as possible before failing and then running away before they’re crushed by a raging, unpredictable beast. In bull-riding that would be a bull, but here it’s the fan base.Cameron Stewart takes over for Philip Tan in the role of being not Frank Quitely, and like Tan my only complaint here is that Stewart’s also fails to be Frank Quitely. Quitely and Morrison started the series and I still have a small preference for his work over the two artists who followed, both of whom have otherwise done a fine job. Then there’s Jock, who has the unenviable task of being comic fandom’s rebound artist after we all fell in love with J.H. Williams III’s artwork on the first two Batwoman arcs of “Detective Comics.”

Jock’s art is good. But seeing this series without Williams for the first time is painful, and there’s no way of getting around that. His artwork made the difference between Detective being one of the best comics on the shelves and being just another good book. There are a few double splash pages here that are similar to those seen in past issues, but the reaction they evoke is akin to walking down the street and noticing a stranger who resembles the person you recently ended a relationship with. I’ll get used to not having Williams’ artwork, but I’m not there yet. Advantage “Batman & Robin”.

Next up, how well does each book handle their guest star? In “Detective,” Batman’s working a case similar to Batwoman’s, he in search of a kidnap victim, she in search of a lunatic kidnapping girls and cutting off body parts as part of some horrific master plan. You get all your classic Batman scenes, from dropping down and silently taking out low-level goons to a rooftop talk with Gordon to the traditional beating up guys in bars for information.

On that last subject, it really does make one wonder how bars manage to keep any sort of steady customer base in Gotham unless they’ve got some sort of “criminals underlings drink free after 11″ policy or a regular henchmen trivia night. The one point that did bother me a little is the timing. The events happening to Batman seem to be happening at an earlier date, but it’s never clearly explained in this issue. The only indication is that Gordon is referred to as “Captain” rather than “Commissioner” in an early scene, but other than that and the vague sense that this isn’t Dick Grayson, the two stories could be simultaneous for all the reader knows.

But Batwoman’s role in “Batman & Robin” is less impressive. She literally pops up from a box with no set up towards the end of the episode. She’s confused, we’re confused (not the least because of a lettering error that swapped her and Batman’s word balloons when she first appears), everyone’s confused. And then she immediately gets shoved into the stock role of comic book character who is worried about the repercussions of raising the dead. Advantage: “Detective Comics.”

Up next, villains. “Detective Comics” sees Batwoman dealing with the aforementioned kidnapper and mutilator who the police have taken to calling “Cutter.” Cutter wears a suit with knives on it. Normally when that statement is made in a comic book, you’d picture some guy in spandex with combat knives strapped onto useful locations like across the torso or on the leg or arm. Cutter, however, is wearing a business suit and tie that has had several knives, some surgical, some culinary, some military, sewn onto the jacket. His appearance most resembles some kind of well-dressed, non-robotic Mega Man boss. And if you really needed convincing that he’s crazy, all the knives are attached point up, meaning one careless arm move or head turn and the pointy stabby bits are going to be right up against his face.

“Batman and Robin” sees Batman, on a trip to London, attempting to attract information from the “Pearly King of Crime”, a very English criminal in a very English prison with very English teeth. He’s written by Grant Morrison. He plays dominoes. Advantage: “Batman & Robin.”

And last, the stories themselves. Both are kicking off a new arc. “Detective Comics” starts the first of three issues of “Cutter,” and it’s a stage setter. It puts the characters into places, introduces us to the eponymous bad guy and also to his next intended victim, Kate’s cousin Bette. After getting thoroughly introduced to Kate over the last two issues I found myself missing her here, as Batman earned roughly equal page attention. But I did like the return of GCPD Captain Maggie Sawyer, who Kate danced with a few issues back, as a possible Gordon-esque police contact for Batwoman.

“Batman and Robin” began an arc entitled “Blackest Knight”, in which Dick went to London and enlisted the help of Knight and Squire, the U.K.’s own dynamic duo who Morrison’s used in prior issues, to find the location of a Lazarus Pit. Given that I already mentioned Batwoman tried to talk them out of bringing someone back to life, you don’t need me to tell you the next issue is named Batman Vs. Batman to give you an idea of what they’re trying to pull off. Advantage: “Batman & Robin”, as Morrison telling a Batman story in England is too much fun to resist.

So, I guess that means “Batman & Robin” wins? I hope it enjoys lifting the imaginary trophy and taking a victory lap around the hypothetical stadium. To be honest, both of the books were fun but neither was excellent. I’m interested to see where Morrison’s going to be taking the story next issue, as I suspect it’s not as straightforward as DC’s been trying to make us think. And Detective really couldn’t help but have a down issue, with this being the first one without J.H. Williams. I have faith that in time I’ll get used to having different artists draw the character, but I’m not there yet.

SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE . . . WHY EXACTLY? – Kick-Ass 8

I’m beginning to develop a bad habit of not liking how Mark Millar ends series. But to be fair, Millar’s got a bad habit of ending series badly. In this case, though, I don’t think it’s fair for me to say that Kick-Ass has a poor ending. I’ve never thought much of the series to begin with, and the eighth and final issue is about the same as the rest.

When I first heard about “Kick-Ass”, I had the same reaction I’ve had to a lot of Millar’s titles. It’s a simple concept, taking a teenager who’s grown up reading comic books, having him decide to actually fight crime as a superhero, and then showing the often brutal results of that decision. I know Millar’s sometimes made fun of because of a viewpoint that his ideas are obvious. But they’re also ideas that have potential, concepts that, in the right hands, could turn out to be remarkable stories. Sadly those hands rarely turn out to be Mark Millar’s. It always seems at the beginning like Millar has something to say. But then what he has to say usually turns out to be things like, “Hey, check out this guy getting shot in the head” or “Watch this guy totally wail on another guy with or stick” or even “This little girl just shot a guy so the bullet went up through his crotch and out the top of his head, how cool is that?” Any possibility of there being something thoughtful or clever to the story is out the door and pages get splattered with so much gore that it makes you wonder how much of the colorist’s budget went to red in comparison to all other colors.

What makes “Kick-Ass” stand out for me is the amount of hype the book’s gotten, with an eagerly anticipated film adaptation coming to theaters in a few months. I’ve kept reading the issues, hoping against hope that there would be some turning point where it all clicked for me and I started to appreciate the book and look forward to the film. But now the final issue has come and gone and I’m left wondering why, out of all the comics that get made, this one somehow got fast-tracked into a motion picture deal that’s got all of Hollywood abuzz. I guess it does provide a straightforward blueprint for an action movie adaptation. And with all the pandering to comic book audiences and a supposedly relatable protagonist, I can understand why there are expectations that costumed fans will flock to midnight premieres, their pockets full of sweet, filthy money.

But as far as creator owned properties go, I could probably run off a long list of books I’d rather see on the screen than this. And as for Dave “Kick-Ass” Lizewski, the latest in a line of Millar protagonists we, the audience, are supposed to be able to identify with? I find this guy being the one we’re expected to want to see ourselves as insulting, to be honest. Like Millar, he seems to be in it for the thrill of the violence more than anything else. Not the most insulting Millar’s even been to his audience, but then the guy did once end a book by actually having his main character launch into a diatribe which specifically was meant to insult the audience. So I guess I was wrong, Millar did leave me with one thought provoking question: Did I really like some of his earlier stuff enough to make me keep buying his books?

ONE HALF OF LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL ROBOT DIVISION – Robocop 1

In the future, Detroit is an economic wasteland, where life is hard and jobs are scarce, and those who remain try to remember a better time.

No, wait, starting over.

In the future, Detroit is still an economic wasteland, where life is hard and jobs are scarce, and those who remain try to remember a better time. Like when people wanted to make movies set in Detroit, rather than settling for a comic adaptation. That being said, I liked the first issue of Dynamite’s new “Robocop” series. It captured the two essential elements of the films. It tells the story of a man stuck in an existence between humanity and machine, struggling to find where he fits in a world that’s often uncomfortable or simply frightened of him. And then despite the serious tone to the overall story, moments of darkly comic satire are continuously injected that both reinforce the underlying message and lighten the mood.

“Robocop” #1 returns readers to the world of Alex Murphy, a murdered police officer brought back to life as a cyborg. Robocop’s a proud part of the Detroit Police Department, but the Department itself has fallen on hard times. Crime is high and resources are low. And so Detroit’s solution is to privatize its law enforcement and turn it over to Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, a mega-corporation which is just as evil as that title makes it sound. OCP’s unhappy with the efficiency of the police department, and so has now decided to replace its weak, fleshy officers with squads of giant, mechanized law enforcement robots. They’ll capture the criminals, bureaucrats will process them, and the regular cops are no longer needed. Law enforcement officers aren’t normally the type to spend time worrying about robots coming along and taking their jobs. After all, Robocop’s the only robot on the force, and he really only took the job he’d held pre-brutal murder. So when the surprise layoffs do happen, they’re entirely unprepared and none too pleased. Robocop, meanwhile, is offered a choice between staying on or turning in all his law enforcement equip and leaving. And in this case that’s a little more than slamming badge and gun down and walking away, as they’re also asking for all the cybernetic parts of his body that let him do things like slam things down on desks, walk, and continue to live a hollow shell of his former existence.

I have to admit to this one being a genuine pleasant surprise. It set up an interesting dilemma in the first issue, and much of the humor was well done. The corporate controlled news segments set the tone of a dark, foul-mouthed unpleasant future while managing to have a laugh about it at the same time. The commercial for an OCP produced food recycler that works exactly the way you’re afraid it would is done in a way just subtle enough to make it believable as a real advertisement. A remarkable job by writer Rob Williams and artist Fabiano Neves of capturing the tone of the original films while still finding space to weave in their own interpretations of the character and setting.

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