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The ’90s Revisited: Batman #525 – Underworld Unleashed!

90s_revisited

batman_0525Frozen Assets

Writer: Doug Moench
Artists: Kelley Jones, John Beatty
Colorist: Greg Wright
Letterer: Todd Klein
Separations: Android Images
Associate Editor: Jordan B. Gorfinkel
Editor: Dennis O’Neil
Cover Date: December 1995
Cover Price: $1.95

This month, a number of blogs and podcasts have joined together to present #BestEventEver 2018, covering the 1995 event Underworld Unleashed! Beyond my own posts, please check out these other blogs and podcasts for in-depth coverage of the various issues that were part of the event…and join in on further peeks at and discussions of the event on Twitter by joining at hashtags #BestEventEver and #UnderworldReUnleashed!

ITG  |  Resurrections: An Adam Warlock/Thanos Podcast  |  Relatively Geeky Podcast Network  |  The Retroist  |  Chris is on Infinite Earths  |  Cosmic Treadmill  |  The Pop Culture Palace  |  Rolled Spine’s Diana Prince: Wonder Woman Podcast  |  The Idol-Head of Diabolu  |  Justice’s First Dawn  |  Justice Trek: The Podcast


Based generally on the premise of Underworld Unleashed–a bunch of villains revamped and powered-up after deals with Neron–I was expecting something big with Mr. Freeze. Instead, other than what amounts to me to be a shoehorned-in reference via dialogue, in terms of what I expected, this is just a random one-off issue involving Freeze.

We open on Batman crouched on a water reservoir surveying the city, reflecting over no one that he knows of from Arkham–or Hell–being loose. The scene then transitions to Mr. Freeze, meeting with a group of rich, elderly individuals, showing off his newest cryo-tech. Seems he’s working to scam them out of their fortunes…and his present "henchmen" are a duo who finish each other’s sentences in rhymes. There’s a subplot with James Gordon and Sarah (Essen, I believe); I’d forgotten about her character and where these two were at the time! Jim’s not Commissioner at present, and is actually looking at running for mayor. By the next night, Freeze has been rejected by his would-be customers…but he decides he’ll put ’em on ice anyway…why let a pesky detail like consent delay him? We have another subplot involving Harvey Bullock who’s had a date recently. As Freeze begins his freezing-spree, Batman realizes that yep–there’s one from Arkham that he missed! A bit of time in the Batcave with Robin and Alfred gets things rolling, and Batman’s back out into the hellish night to deal with this master of cryonics. Batman makes short work of the henchfolks, discovers he’s too late to save Freeze’s victims, and finally takes on the man himself, breaking through ice barriers and then the helmet of the cryo-suit. Ultimately, Batman leaves Freeze and his henchfolks for the police–Freeze sitting in an open refrigerator to offset his compromised cold-suit, awaiting his return to Hell (Arkham).

I wanted to like this issue. It’s an issue of Batman. It’s from the ’90s–and I quite enjoy ’90s comics! I thought I remembered liking Kelley Jones‘ art, despite its exaggerated style. It’s an Underworld Unleashed tie-in and includes Mr. Freeze in a souped-up, upgraded-looking suit…surely a deal with Neron! It was supposed to be a cool issue! (Pardon the punnage).

Perhaps I’m too used to modern Batman art, perhaps I expected too much from my nostalgia…but on this read through, I really did NOT like the art at all. It seemed wildly inconsistent–one panel, the bat-cowl’s "ears" are curved backward, another they’re sticking straight up, the exaggeration just didn’t work well for me here. A lot of bodily anatomy seemed "off" and too angular or (and I keep using that word) over-exaggerated, much like I’d think of for a political cartoon. Even the coloring–that I don’t often notice in itself–seems a bit "too" contrasty (whether that’s my particular copy of the issue or not, I’m not absolutely certain). I’m not gonna pick apart every detail that bugged me in this issue, but there were plenty throughout. There’s some potential, to me, to this design of Freeze’s suit and the way he’s drawn–kinda like a light from within the suit is obscuring the lower part of his face, giving him more of a floating-skull-in-a-tank appearance…which at first glance speaks to my expectation of new/revised villains in light of deals with Neron, their powers amped-up but at a cost.

The story really does not see that point out, though–we have references to Freeze’s cryonics/cryo technology, and by the end of the issue, confirmation that he NEEDS this suit to survive, and that it IS his suit; it doesn’t pose a threat to Batman as a Neron-provided suit ought to! In and of itself–Batman vs. Mr. Freeze–this isn’t a bad story. I have a hard time divorcing the story completely from the art…but structurally, I like the story. It’s in a comfort zone of expectation for Batman, and it’s basically a done-in-one issue that includes some subplotty stuff to loosely progress an overall Batman-comics-narrative. Batman’s watching over Gotham; he knows he can’t save everyone/stop every last criminal, but he can handle the bigger ones the cops can’t handle; but he doesn’t know initially that Freeze is out. Once he does, he heads out to stop him, though he’s too late to save the latest victims, but he manages to stop Freeze himself. The issue doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything but tuning into the latest episode of a series. Other than a brief reference to Neron in dialogue, there doesn’t feel like there’s any tie to Underworld Unleashed. Take the textual reference out, and take the event logo off the cover, and reading this, I’d have no idea it was supposed to be a tie-in!

While Moench‘s story is good in itself, the art bugs me, and I’m annoyed at my expectations not being met for this being an event tie-in for Underworld Unleashed. Additionally, after Mr. Freeze’s upgrade to seeming like he was practically an ice-elemental or such, biologically-generating/controlling coldness over in the previous month’s Green Lantern #68, which this in no way references, it’s like two different characters and a huge continuity-hole…itself particularly egregious due to being cover-dated only a single month after the Green Lantern issue!

Because it has the event’s logo on the cover, if you’re seeking out "the entire event," this issue’s worth getting for that much; and if you’re a fan of Moench or Kelley (writing or art) not really anything to say not to get this issue (especially if you come across it in a bargain bin!). But otherwise…this feels like an entirely forgettable, skippable issue, not worth specifically seeking out. As it’s basically done-in-one, though, it’s functionally one of the better values you’ll get if you find it for 25-50 cents or such, since that price gets you an "entire" story without it being a middle-numbered chapter of a contemporary 6-issue arc, nor does it send you chasing after another issue to find out what happens off a "To Be Continued…" cliffhanger.

Taken alone, this issue does not do much for me, does not "inspire" me to want to read more of this Batman, nor to seek out more Underworld Unleashed, and so it really feels to me like a failure as an event chapter. Hopefully other issue I cover of this event give me a better feeling!


Again, please check out these other sites for additional, more in-depth coverage of the various other issues–including the main event mini itself–for Underworld Unleashed!

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The ’80s Revisited: Detective Comics #572

detective_comics_0572The Doomsday Book

By: Mike W. Barr
Colored by: Adrienne Roy
Edited by: Denny O’Neil
Cover: Michael William Kaluta
Published by: DC Comics
Cover Date: March 1987
Cover Price: $1.25

Chapter One:
Artist: Alan Davis
Letterer: John Workman

Chapter Two
Artists: Terry Beatty & Dick Giordano
Letters: Todd Klein
Colors: Carl Gafford

Chapter Three
Arists: Carmine Infantino, Al Vey
Letterer: Todd Klein
Colorist: Carl Gafford

Chapter Four
Artist: E.R. Cruz
Letterer: Romeo Francisco

Centerpiece
Dick Sprang

Chapter Five
Artists: Alan Davis, Paul Neary
Letterer: John Workman

dick_sprang_remembers_detective_572

I’m finding that I’m a bit of a sucker for ’80s anniversary issues. Especially ones like this, where it’s not some round number of an issue, not a bunch of variant covers, not a relaunch or renumbering, not even the culmination of some huge story that’s overly self-aware of numbering. This seems–essentially–to be a nice, hefty, done-in-one full-length self-contained adventure…and it’s not at all hard to see where this could (by present-day standards) be dragged out as some six-issue mini-series (at least) if not multiple 2-3 issues mini-series or such.

But of course that would fly in the face of an anniversary ISSUE. In this case, celebrating 50 years of the title, not Batman himself, though the caped crusader has a definite role in the issue!

What we get here is an extra-sized issue with story elements on multiple fronts, allowing multiple art teams to work on the title, as well as the writer to flex and work with different characters that aren’t strictly Batman or his immediate Bat-group. This issue is from a time much closer to the title’s historical format with multiple characters sharing the title…even though Batman’s been the most prominent character, a number of other characters "came up" through the title, not necessarily related specifically to Batman or stories involving Batman himself.

I’ve been aware of Barr‘s work for a long time…and while I’ve come to know him as the writer of Batman: Year Two, and Camelot 3000, and Batman and the Outsiders and whatnot…I most associate him with Mantra, one of my favorite Ultraverse titles growing up in the ’90s. That a creator of a character I thoroughly enjoyed there also has such a history with Batman has been icing on the cake, so to speak.

I’ve primarily read Detective Comics from #604-onward…very much after the "anthology" format was basically jettisoned and it’s been just another Batman title. So while aware of its history, I haven’t actually read much of that history…at least not while of any age to truly appreciate it (I know I’ve read a number of issues from Grandpa’s collection, back in my earliest comic days, but that was a quarter-century ago!).

Slam Bradley finds himself with a client who’s under the gun–literally. Though Batman and Robin intervene for the moment, there’s more to the situation–and story–and he’s determined to figure it out. What he doesn’t count on is learning of a couple names with prominent ties to the past: Watson…and Moriarty. The Elongated Man–Ralph Dibny–gets involved, with a personal encounter with the villain at hand, confirming what Slam Bradley had learned. We then jump to "the past," and a tale of Sherlock Holmes…fitting to the continuity of this issue’s story, while being simply a new Sherlock Holmes story, and certainly celebrating the title Detective Comics.  The various branches of the overall story converge and we get back to Batman and Robin being on the page as all the characters come together…including a rather surprising (to the characters) figure, one that I had actually come to think would not be present in quite the way they turned out to be.

This issue is just over 30 years old, but I still step around stuff a bit. Consider this your spoiler warning.

After this line, I get into "spoilers," as I would if this had not been a three-decade old back-issue.

Batman meets a significantly-aged Sherlock Holmes here. As this was published in 1987, along with being the 50th anniversary of Detective Comics, it was the 100th anniversary of Sherlock Holmes. And with a mention of living conditions and such, and just HOW old the character looks at the end of this issue…it may have been a bit of a stretch to consider a man would live to be over 120 years old (if he was already an adult in adventures in 1887). Of course, 30 years later, this is no longer plausible in the slightest…at least to me. So it "dates" the issue, but in a good way…and it was a pleasant surprise to find that the cover was not JUST a case of being some thematic team-up where both characters appear in the course of the issue but don’t directly interact…we actually get to see Batman meet THE Sherlock Holmes. (Though I’m not gonna get into the meta-stuff of characters recognizing the STORIES but then having the story-accurate character showing up in their midst as a "real guy").

Though there were multiple art teams for the issue, with them being split up across different chapters (instead of several pages here, several there) it really served the story, and kept things from seeming choppy or such. Batman didn’t seem to be in much of the issue, but where he was, he seemed "’80s-accurate" to me; and the other characters (that I’m less familiar with, particularly from this time frame) all work and don’t stand out as contradictory to whatever I do know about them. The cover led me to believe (in conjunction with something I’d read in the past) that the focus of the issue might’ve been a Batman/Sherlock Holmes team-up/adventure. I was initially disappointed, as I thought when I bought the issue that it’d be a team-up. As the issue went on, it took on more a sense of reality, history, and "legacy" that I found intriguing…such that it was simply a treat to have the aged Holmes show up at the end as he did.

There’s a nice "center spread" by Dick Sprang that makes for a good touch, and far out-beats contemporary practices where it would have been a variant cover or a couple of variant covers. It’s just a nice double-page art piece showcasing Sprang‘s take on the characters.

I believe I paid $6 for this issue, against its $1.25 cover price. By contemporary comics’ standards, this was well worth that price and then some. For time it took to read, it more than out-matched contemporary comics, at the "inflated" or "priced back issue" dollar I paid for it. This would absolutely be worth getting out of a bargain bin…and I have no problem with having paid a slightly more "premium" price for it as an actual, priced back issue and not something from a bargain bin. This stands alone as a singular, strong issue, and other than knowing that the characters exist, you don’t really need to know any present-day (at the time) continuity to enjoy this issue; FROM this issue, I would not be able to tell you myself offhand what was going on in issues immediately before or immediately after this issue.

Highly recommended!

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Zero Hour Revisited – Batman: Shadow of the Bat #31

90srevisited_zerohour

batman_shadow_of_the_bat_0031The Battling Butler!

Writer: Alan Grant
Artist: Bret Blevins
Colorist: Adrienne Roy
Letterer: Todd Klein
Cover Painter: Brian Stelfreeze
Published by: DC Comics
Cover Date: September 1994
Cover Price: $1.95

This issue is another “old favorite,” one that–by the cover at least–I clearly remember from reading its week of release back in 1994. However, reading this in 2016, I’m not sure if I’d actually re-read this issue since then or not…and I’m leaning toward not.

I’d forgotten that  the earlier issues of this series had these painted covers, and a different style with the interiors that set it off from the main titles. There’s something to the issue other than the price that sets it off. And then there’s that price…this was a $1.95 book amidst $1.50 books…back when there was a bit more variance in price that didn’t seem QUITE so drastic as $2.99 vs $3.99.

Playing nicely with the Zero Hour theme of randomish Time anomalies relevant to the given title, this Batman book sees the appearance of an older version of Alfred. This one is a bit larger and more of a bumbling butler and wanna-be PI than the cool, collected, tall, skinny actor/former soldier that’s become such a norm present day. While Batman and Robin deal with some guy who’s gotten access to a hypnotic potion that allows him to get rich guys to “rob themselves” and give him the loot, we also get this story of a butler out of time, trying to fit in…whose appearance’s timing hits close to the heart as “our” Alfred has just recently resigned from being on Bruce Wayne’s payroll in protest for of Bruce’s unwillingness to stop so drastically recklessly endangering his own life. By the time things are resolved, this alternate Alfred fades away, closing out this one-off issue that closes with a simple THE END, rather than some To Be Continued or other cliffhanger.

I don’t recall when Alan Grant left the title, and didn’t remember he was still on the title at this point, though I believe this title was essentially created “for” him when there was a shuffling on Detective and Batman. That’s really not here nor there for Zero Hour, though, except to point out that his name on this and what he brought to this story is a real treat…particularly for being essentially a self-contained issue that plays nicely in the Zero Hour sandbox without really raising any problematic questions nor confusing someone who read this issue solely for being a Zero Hour tie-in rather than the next issue of whatever other story could be going on at the time.

Visually, I quite enjoyed the art, and the early pages really strongly put me in mind of the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series, which was a welcome touch. That was a stylistic thing, something with the linework and especially the colors…and yet the character designs are definitely NOT that style associated with the animated series, and really fit the comics as-is for the time this was published.

I remember knowing just enough Batman history to realize even at the time that this was an earlier version of Alfred; though as of this typing I fail to recall if it was Golden Age or (more likely) Silver Age. Other than the actual fact of this Alfred’s presence and a reference TO wonky stuff going on with Time, this issue doesn’t do anything with Zero Hour in itself–no particular plot point is picked up or driven forward or scene expanded and elaborated on…this is just a great one-off issue that takes advantage of the notion that anyone from anyWHEN can show up and it makes sense without needing to set things up within the issue nor wrap it up by the end.

This was a real treat to (re)read, and really a truly great single issue…offhand probably the most self-contained thus far and as such extremely worthy of acquiring–whether from a bargain bin, dollar bin, or up to $4 (cover price $1.95, but this equals and/or vastly surpasses many contemporary $3.99 books of 2016)!

House of Mystery #1 [Review]

Quick Rating: Good
Story Title: The First Drink is on the House, The Hollows

A new story is set up as we’re introduced to the present status quo of the House of Mystery…

houseofmystery001Writers: Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham
Artists: Luca Rossi, Ross Campbell
Colors: Lee Loughridge
Letters: Todd Klein
Cover: Sam Weber
Variant Cover: Bernie Wrightson
Co-Editors: Shelly Bond & Angela Rufino
Publisher: DC Comics

I don’t normally read Vertigo books as single issues, especially for their first arcs, knowing I’ll be able to check them out in a bargain-priced TPB for the first arc, and tend to find the stories much more engaging read as full arcs rather than singles.

What intrigued me with this series was the premise that there would be stories within the story…as well as a vague recollection of the "House of Mystery" having a role in Gaiman‘s Sandman series, which I read a number of years ago.

The issue actually opens with Cain and Abel, in their familiar relationship I recalled from Sandman, which drew me right into the issue. While Cain finds himself in an interesting predicament, the story moves forward a few years, and we find ourselves in the midst of a farewell party for an individual preparing to leave, even as others remain stuck. We also get the beginnings of a look at someone on the run with only drawings of a mysterious house. We’re also treated to a story by one of the patrons of the kitchen–as stories are the only currency of any weight here. This story provides some context to who she is, leading into a rather disturbing revelation that she herself doesn’t even seem to realize…though it seems perfectly fitting for a mysterious house full of people who can’t seem to go anywhere.

The story reminds me of a story from the Sandman, at least as far as characters being brought together in one place and sharing stories of their pasts and where they come from and all that. At the same time, there seems to be a certain "framing" story overall that hints at a larger story at play, even while we meet the characters in this house and are treated to the stories they tell one another. That the art team varies for the stories being told is something I really like, more fully illustrating the difference between the main story we’re witnessing as readers, and the story we’re witnessing as fellow listeners while a story is told within the story.

Overall, the art all around works quite well to me, accentuating the story in a very believable way. In something of a rare moment, I feel like I got both a "full" story in this issue where I don’t feel I have to get the next issue…but there’s also enough of something else that I’m interested in seeing what else is to be found. The final page seems to work as well both as an ending and a beginning…a nice "hook" for the reader.

This is a very solid first issue, and if subsequent issues read much in the way this one did, I think it’ll be a nice treat, without even needing to read a bunch of issues in one sitting just to feel like I’m getting the fuller picture.

If only to try it out, I definitely recommend this issue.

Ratings:

Story: 4/5
Art: 3/5
Overall: 3.5/5

Unwritten #2 [Review]

Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity: Chapter Two

Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Peter Gross
Colors: Chris Chuckry, Jeanne McGee
Letters: Todd Klein
Editor: Pornsak Pichetshote
Cover: Yuko Shimizu
Publisher: Vertigo / DC Comics

This issue continues to show us Tom Taylor and his quest for the truth–of himself, his dad, and what’s going on around him. He seeks out the woman his father had an affair with while he was a boy to ask her about his real mother. He’s referred to where his father was last seen, and heads there. The present-day story is interspersed with excerpts from the Tommy Taylor books, adding an extra layer to the story.

The art continues to work very well for the story, taking on the appropriate visual style for showing the ‘real world’ or the world within the Tommy Taylor books. No complaints from me there.

The story also continues to impress–there’s definite development of Tom, and forward movement to the story; between the pages showing excerpts from the books as well as “web activity” related to “current events” in the present-day part of the story, there’s a lot going on within these pages that help to make it feel like a longer read than it is–one cannot simply flip through the pages skimming the words as one can with some comics these days.

I’m not as blown away with this issue as I was with the first, having extremely high expectations after enjoying the premiere issue so thoroughly (plus, this issue managed to sneak out two weeks ago and I didn’t even notice it the week it was released).

While certainly not a done-in-one story, I do feel like I’m getting a decent value following this as single issues (for all two issues out so far)–I hope it continues that way, making the collected volume feel like less of a necessity for enjoyment of the story at hand.

If you can find that first issue still, I highly recommend snagging both issues–especially if you’re a fan of Harry Potter or have any interest (even academically) in the nature of the “phenomenon” surrounding the Harry Potter books.

Story: 8.5/10
Art: 8/10
Whole: 8/10

The Unwritten #1 [Review]

Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity

Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Peter Gross
Colors: Chris Chuckry
Letters: Todd Klein
Editor: Pornsak Pichetshote
Cover: Yuko Shimizu
Publisher: Vertigo / DC Comics

This issue opens with essentially a graphic novel representation of a popular kids’ book, one that I immediately compared to Harry Potter. The scene unfolds in a way that reminded me of the ending of Harry Potter, book 7…and at the conclusion of this scene, we move into a “real life” scene years after the Tommy Taylor book had seen print, and meet Tom Taylor. As the now-adult model for the fictional character, Tom has made a living cashing in on the fame thrust upon him–all the more as his father disappeared years earlier–some suspect murdered, but Tom just knows his father left him. At a TommyCon panel, Tom is asked by an audience member about his true past, revealing documents casting his identity into suspicion. As the suspicion makes the national news, Tom finds himself hated and hounded by the public.

I don’t have much to say about the art on this issue–it very much sets a certain tone, and conveys both a fantasy setting and “real world” settings very well. A number of small details capture the feel of the settings, while never making me feel like I was reading something trying to be anything other than a comic book. As a co-creator of the book, and this being the debut issue, there’s nothing prior to make much of a comparison to, but Gross’ work certainly sets a nice standard for a high level of visual quality on this.

The story, though, is what makes this issue. I found myself drawn in from the first page; familiarity with Harry Potter brought to mind, and curious what would set this apart from that. (Further reflection also has me reminded strongly of Abadazad.) We’re introduced to several in-story fictional characters, and then several characters meant to reflect the “real world” within this series. We’re not given a whole lot on any individual character, but we’re given enough to be interested in Tom and his life–who he really is, where he’s come from…what happened to his father, what inspired the Tommy Taylor stories, and a number of other questions. We have a realistic world built around the character–complete with news excerpts, web news articles, blog/chat excerpts, and even snippets of notes from the “author” of the Tommy Taylor books.

There is a lot at play here–I know just enough about writing that I can tell there’s loads of metatextual stuff to be found–that appeals on a number of levels. Wrap the multiple layers with the engaging story and believable characters that are familiar yet unknown enough to engage the reader.

This is one of the best reads I’ve found in comics in a long time…and certainly one of the best values in contemporary comics. We have an oversized issue with few ads priced at only $1; the story is very much a “pilot episode” of sorts, where there’s a story to be found just in this issue, while setting up plenty for the rest of the series to come. As a Vertigo book, I wouldn’t recommend this for the youngest readers, but with that in mind, I highly recommend this issue!

Story: 9/10
Art: 9/10
Whole: 9/10

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