What to Read in Comic Books: Scott Snyder’s Work with Batman Is Outstanding

I grew up in the most boring place imaginable. Though I was born near Chicago, my parents started moving further South from the time I was a baby until they stopped in the middle of a corn field in Indiana and said, “Yup, guess this is far enough.” It was a five-mile bike ride to “town,” which at that time housed 2500 people, two drug stores, one local grocery store and a Ben Franklin. It did have a solid public library, though I somehow didn’t take advantage that properly until I was 13. It was also a two-and-a-half mile ride to the smaller grocery store/drug store combo that was near the closest expressway exit. This was close enough to ride to regularly, even when I was younger and  I did this every summer until I learned to drive for three reasons.

First: I was bored out of my fucking mind. Kids these days will never again know boredom like mine. We had literally five channels on the television (ABC/NBC/CBS + PBS and Fox 32 in Chicago, which was often fuzzy and was a far cry from the Fox network it would become), no cable for ages, no internet, few video games, and not even that many potential friends in the neighborhood to hang out with.

Second: There was a pretty good fast food joint over there that served excellent Italian Beef and soft serve ice cream. As long as you had a little scratch on you, this was far better than a bologna sandwich.

And Third: The drug store had a comic rack.
You know, one of the old school, turny ones that could hold like 20 different books in various slots at one time. I cannot tell you how important this was. The closest proper comic book store was thirty miles away, and I only got to visit it once every two weeks when my dad picked me up for the weekend. Thus I would ride the 2.5 miles each way multiple times a week just to see if they had anything new. This was despite the fact that I knew they probably didn’t… riding my bike there, grabbing lunch, and looking sadly at a rack of the same old comics was just slightly more fun than staying at home and doing nothing. (Also note: boredom eventually makes you crazy.)

Anyway, the point of this is that comic books were really important to me when I was a kid. Unfortunately as I grew older, the disposable income I’d dump on comics went to things like Magic: the Gathering, video games, gas, and alcohol instead. I never stopped loving them, but my relationship with comic books has been off and on for the last 20 years or so. I note this because something funny happened along the way.

Opening this issue in the mail was pretty damned cool.

When I left comics behind at the end of high school, they were heavily focused on artists and creator-controlled content. Image Comics had recently formed, and artists like Jim Lee, Mark Silvestri, Rob Liefeld and Todd Mcfarlane were huge, but it meant that you never knew what to expect from the writing for books that had a strong artist behind them. This was often really frustrating, as a bunch of the stuff that was published with interesting concepts back then ended up being 22 pages of art wank with some words written on top to tie it all together. I wasn’t cool enough to realize I should be buying Sandman or Alan Moore’s work at the time, so instead I suffered through a myriad of crappy super hero books, trying to find the gold.

Thankfully, during the last 20 years, comic books finally got their shit together and started focusing on the best writers instead of the best artists. My guess is that they realized how important writing is when you plan to turn your comic properties into eventual movies. Obviously comics will always be a melding of writing and art, but fans (like me) who really enjoy comic books for the writing and the dialogue have definitely benefitted from the focus on excellent writers like Brubaker, Rucka, Bendis, Waid, Ellis, Ennis, Morrison, Kirkman, Vaughn, Simone, etc.

My time on Curacao was books only, but once I moved back to civilization (in this case, the UK), I realized I could once again read comic books on a regular basis. With next day shipping, even. That said, I was no longer interested in buying monthly runs of books, but instead chose to focus on buying trade paperbacks and hardcovers of books that seemed interesting. Luckily for me, I have a metric fuckton of friends who have really good taste in comics, so the recommendations I received on what to read were almost universally spectacular. Big thanks to Rosewater, Flores, BDM, Justin Treadway, Tommy Ashton, and everyone else who have given me so much good stuff to read over the last three years.

So yeah, that’s the brief back story of me and comic books. Going forward I’ll mostly stick to talking about what I liked and didn’t like about what I’ve been reading lately. I’m not going to review many plot details though, since I literary criticism isn’t remotely my strength, and even telling you who the villain is in some of these stories spoils a little bit of the fun. Instead I’ll just say some things I like or didn’t like, give my verdict and move on.

This was good. Ultimate Avengers? Not so much.

Ultimate Avengers Omnibus – Mark Millar (and friends)
I read The Ultimates series 1 and 2 in individual comic form back when I was living in Charlottesville and it was very cool. Normally I can’t be bothered to care about the Avengers as a whole (despite liking most of the members in their solo form), but the reimagining here as a darker, more realistic team really worked. Combine that with the fact that most of Millar’s work is gold and I was really excited to see what he did with the team in Ultimate Avengers.

Sadly, this book was crap. And since it was an Omnibus, that means it was a heaping pile of crap (there are no page numbers, but I’m going to guess it’s about 300 pages. Of crap.) I hated the Red Skull storyline, which felt like it was an exercise in how to take the book in as abusive and brutal a direction as possible, and I also hated the… vampires… (siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh)storyline. Marvel Zombies? Fucking awesome. Basically the perfect way to do a horror + superhero mash up. Ultimates plus vampires? What a mess. The other two story arcs involving Ghost Rider and the Ultimates civil war were fine, but it felt like Millar had handed this entire series (which I gather was like four years worth of issues) off to one of his grad students and then signed his name to it at the end to earn the paycheck.

Verdict: Even if you liked The Ultimates (and you should), steer clear.

Batman – The Court of Owls (part 1), The Black Mirror, The Gates of Gotham – Scott Snyder
One of the things that makes Batman such great material for storytellers is that he’s just a dude. Sure, he’s rich and brilliant, and okay he’s probably the world’s most perfect blend of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Bruce Lee, but subconsciously that’s what we’re all going to be when we grow up. Aside from being a crazy outlier for humanity, he doesn’t have any super powers – he’s totally human. This makes him inherently more accessible than say, a Kryptonian orphan who has every useful physical super power imaginable. (Translation: Superman kind of sucks.) Also, because Batman is merely human, it makes his successes that much greater, but it also lets writers delve into really dark material at will. Almost all of the best Bat stories involve psychopaths and death, something you just don’t get very often with Supes or almost any other mainline super hero for that matter.

I had never heard of Scott Snyder until about a year ago, but having read a bunch of his work in the last month, I will agree with the consensus and say he’s one of the best new writers around. All of his work features zippy dialogue to go along with strong, high concept story arcs that feature really vivid characters. Judging by his work on American Vampire (which is fantastic), he’s also happy to include plenty of wetworks to go along with some serious musings on humanity, which makes him right at home taking the reins of Detective/Batman.

Gates of Gotham was only plotted by Snyder, while Kyle Higgins did most of the dialogue work. Unfortunately, it shows, because while the story here is still good, the writing (and especially the dialogue) doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the other two Bat books listed. It’s still solid and the Gates arc gives Gotham City itself some nice history, but it not great enough to merit heavy recommendations.

The Black Mirror and The Court of Owls on the other hand, are exceptional. I’ve been reading a lot of classic Batman work this year, and Snyder’s work with the character absolutely belongs with the best. I don’t read the monthly books and thus don’t know how Court of Owls will end up (it’s the last in chronology for the three trades listed above), but Snyder + Greg Capullo is a match made in Bat heaven. Capullo made his name drawing for Spawn after Todd McFarlane’s head grew too big to actually draw anything outside of models for action figures, so his style obviously loves a character who hangs out in shadows.

The basic plotline is that Bruce Wayne is finally back, and he discovers layers of Gotham he never knew existed, including this mysterious Court of Owls. What happens from there is a tour de force of action plus madness plus awesome that is one of the best combinations of writer, artist, and superhero I can remember.

As good as Court of Owls is, however, I think The Black Mirror is even better.  It is a glorious plunge into dark, human fucked-upness that features Dick Grayson wearing the cowl, and all sorts of uncomfortable family issues for Jim Gordon.  Because of this, it feels like it ties back into both Batman: Year One (Frank Miller) and The Killing Joke (Alan Moore), Bat tales told by two of the enduring giants in the comic industry, and the story even manages to match those lofty heights.  The art is split by Jock and Francesco Francavilla, and while not as impressive on the whole as Capullo’s current run, it’s still outstanding work and has some insane highlights. If you are craving more Bat after seeing The Dark Knight Rises, you can’t go wrong here. Just don’t expect for it to be a cheery experience, because the stories in these pages are at least as dark as what Nolan has produced on the big screen.

Black Mirror: This one belongs in the pantheon of great Batman tales alongside Long Halloween, A Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, Year One, Hush, and the Dark Knight Returns.
Gates of Gotham: Good
Court of Owls: Outstanding so far, but not done yet

Aside from these, I also finished Justice League: Origins (no clue if this is going to get good at some point) this month, plus half of All-Star Superman Absolute Edition, all of Absolute Batman: Dark Victory, and the first four volumes of Johnathan Hickman’s work on the Fantastic Four. There’s a longer essay about the FF rolling around in my brain at the moment, but I want to see where Hickman takes the series before I bang that out.

–Ted Knutson

@mixedknuts on Twitter

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What to Read – Summer 2012

At the end of the EPL season, I took a much-deserved two-week vacation with the intention of recharging my batteries, spending time with my family, unplugging from the internet and reading books. Much of my recent reading has come in the form of graphic novels (Scott Snyder’s Batman work and the latest 3 volumes of Powers are excellent), but I hadn’t had much time or energy to plunge into proper books. Thankfully, vacations change that, especially when the only TV on is in French. Here’s what I bought (basically all of which came recommended via Twitter) with a short review of those I have read so far.

Purchased
The Chronoliths – Robert Charles Wilson
The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt
Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle, Caine Black Knife – Matthew Woodring Stover
Feed – Mira Grant
Vicious Circle (plus the rest of the Felix Castor stuff) – Mike Carey
Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban
The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi

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What to Read #2 – Pillars of Fantasy

Last time in What to Read I covered some of my favourite authors across Fantasy and Science Fiction. This time, after taking a brief, informal poll, I will write about some Fantasy. As always, these are merely my opinions about things and not meant to approach anything comprehensive or objective.

Pillars of the Genre
I was going to start off discussing children’s fantasy but quickly realized that deserves its own section, so we’ll instead start with the pillars of the genre. These are heavily weighted toward classic sword and sorcery fantasy, mostly to make this entry more wieldy, since the term ‘fantasy’ now encompasses an enormous raft of books that would otherwise be difficult to categorize. (Note: This means I’m leaving out some awesome stuff like Neil Gaiman and many others, but I’ll come back to them soon.)

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (1954-55) – JRR Tolkein
Obv. The writing might feel a bit archaic and wordy at times, but Tolkein deserves at least partial credit for basically founding modern fantasy writing (and probably Dungeons and Dragons as well). I’ll spare you the additional superfluous detail here and send you to the Wikipedia page if you want to know more.

The Wizard of Earthsea(1968) – Ursula K. LeGuin
To me, this series and the Belgariad represent the perfect transition from childhood fantasy stories to more adult stuff (LeGuin won a number of awards for the series, including the Newberry and the Nebula). It starts with the usual coming of age trope, but moves on to some interesting morality discussions. Earthsea is quirky and easy to read, but touches on topics with some depth to them.

I actually think some of LeGuin’s science fiction work is some of the best the genre has ever seen, but Earthsea is excellent and a timeless classic.

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