GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "B" PAGE 1

Back to the main listings (including character sections)
 

Batman: Batgirl
is reviewed here.


Batgirl: Year One2003 (SC TPB) 218 pgs

Written by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon. Pencils by Marcos Martin. Inked by Alvaro Lopez.
Colours: Javier Rodriguez. Letters: Willie Schubert. Editor: Matt Idelson.

Reprinting: Batgirl: Year One #1-9 (2003)

Additional notes: covers; sketch gallery

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Mar. 2015

Published by DC Comics

For other significant Batgirl TPBs/GNs see Batman: Batgirl and Batman: The Cat and The Bat.

Batgirl: Year One follows the tradition of re-telling origin stories of iconic characters in a finite, mini-series format -- both expanding upon the original, simpler tales and re-imagining the origin to account for ways the character has developed over the years. This started after DC' Crisis on Infinite Earths when it literally was re-booting its universe (the "Year One" subtitle I think being first used for Batman: Year One though it has since been used for other series and characters, at both DC and Marvel). Although this Batgirl re-telling is a fairly late entry in the field, coming almost twenty years after Crisis, and at a point where Batgirl -- Barbara Gordon -- was no longer physically active, having become the wheelchair-bound cyber hacker, Oracle (though I think Babs has re-donned the Bat-garb more recently).

This mini-series takes us back to the innocent, halcyon days of Batgirl's origins. Barbara Gordon, daughter of police detective Jim Gordon (not yet Commissioner Gordon) has an interest in following her pop into law enforcement, but finds even he is un-encouraging. It's more by accident than design that she ends up embarking on a costumed career, having been attending a costume party in a Bat-girl costume just as it's invaded by would-be kidnappers.

Over the next few issues she pursues the life of a costumed crime fighter, keeping her dual identity secret from her dad, and receiving decidedly mixed signals for Gotham's resident caped crusaders, Batman and Robin -- Batman constantly warning her off, imperiously telling her to give up her hobby, even as Robin seems to be covertly aiding her, supplying her with necessary equipment, advice, and a Bat-cycle she couldn't afford on her librarian's salary. She also gets pointers from one or two other heroes, even teaming up with Black Canary for an issue.

Her main, recurring adversary is a costumed foe called Killer Moth -- a decidedly second rate villain who has trouble getting even the underworld to take him seriously. But things take a decidedly more serious turn when Killer Moth teams up with Firebug -- a lethal and psychotic pyromaniac, effectively up-ing the stakes.

As mentioned, these "Year One" type tales are both a chance to expand and develop upon old origins for modern, arguably more sophisticated readers, and sometimes to re-invent the tales entirely. This time out it's more of the former than the latter, with not too much here that radically diverges from any version of the story before. Heck -- the Killer Moth-at-a-costume party thing really had been her inaugural adventure back in Detective Comics #359 in the 1960s (and it might've been neat to have included that issue in this TPB). Although the Firebug -- I think another pre-existing character -- hadn't been part of that tale.

Reading about the Killer Moth here and seeing how he was explicitly meant to be Batman's opposite number, a millionaire criminal who attempts to hire himself out to criminals as basically the Reverse-Batman (villains summoning him the way cops summon Batman) -- I thought it was an interesting concept. But it turns out that was all part of the pre-existing mythos and nothing to do with Beatty and Dixon.

Anyway, the result is largely enjoyable. Part of the point is to approach Batgirl as the lighter, more human side of the Batman Family, so the saga is at times a little gentler, a little more whimsical in tone, with Barbara an appealing, wry, "normal" heroine in contrast to Batman's dark n' glowering demeanour. Although that clashes a bit with the addition of the Firebug and his tendency to use a flame-thrower, burning victims to death! (Though such scenes aren't belaboured and are, after all, meant to raise the stakes and increase the sense of menace).

Frequently there's a tendency with latter-day retro Batgirl stories to play up the darkness, to make them more in keeping with Batman, and to treat them as a kind of "loss of innocence" stories, such as the one-shot Batman: Batgirl (depicting her first encounter with The Joker), DC 1st: Batgirl/Joker (ditto, though with more emphasis on a latter-day Batgirl) and Girlfrenzy: Batgirl (with Batgirl battling a homicidal villain). So you could argue Beatty and Dixon actually go a more original route here by realizing that maybe Babs' appeal is precisely that she isn't just Batman with breasts, and should have her own personality, perspective, and milieu.

Marcos Martin's appealing art likewise straddles the different needs, being at once simple and light, even a bit cartoony, capturing a kind of gentle spirit -- even as it's equally dynamic and atmospheric, with effective character designs. If you're not familiar with his work, one could liken it in a way, to Tim Sale. There's a weird mix to the visuals of, as mentioned, a certain open and lightness, even as it still occurs in a familiarly dark and sombre Gotham City.

Because it's a "Year One" tale, there is an inevitable tendency to throw in deliberately prophetic bits or ironic lines, since the reader theoretically knows what lies ahead (such as the teaming with Black Canary when, later, Black Canary will eventually work for Babs as part of the Birds of Prey, or more notably playing on our fore-knowledge of Barbara eventually being crippled by the Joker and ending up in a wheelchair) -- sometimes overly self-consciously so (though it doesn't cast too much of a pall over the humorous bits). There's also a minor sub-plot tying in the origin of Jason Bard -- a plain clothes PI of the DC Universe who, previously, had no connection to Batgirl's origin. Although it's to somewhat pointless, or at least, self-indulgent effect (surely by linking him more intimately with the super hero stuff, it loses the point of a non-super hero character like him!)

The series is overall enjoyable, with some interesting scenes, and some occasional quirky narrative tricks (like Chapter Six, where the action is cut up ambiguously so that it's not till the end of the issue that we realize how things relate).

But if I had a main issue with it, it's something I've commented on before. Namely, well, it is nine-freaking-issues. Yet the story is fairly simple. Killer Moth (and Firebug) are the primary threat throughout (with a brief tussle with the Blockbuster thrown in) and the characters are fairly limited (even Jason Bard's appearances are minor). It's not that it feels slow or padded, or with Beatty and Dixon shamelessly stretching out minor scenes over multiple pages as some modern writers do. But equally it's not like it's complex. If you were to drag this off the shelf a few months down the line for a re-reading it's unlikely you'd re-discover sub-plots or character threads that you had forgotten about. Nor are there many subtle subtexts or anything that require multiple re-readings to really milk all the nuances from it.

Cover price: __.


Best of Marvel '961997 (SC TPB) 218 pgs

Writers: Mark Waid, Scott Lobdell, Kurt Busiek, Karl Kesel, Larry Hama, Bill Messner-Loebs, Todd Dezago, Tom DeFalco. Artists: Adam Kubert, Chris Bachalo, Ron Garney, Pat Olliffe, Cary Nord, Mike Wieringo, John Buscema, Joe Bennett.
Colours/letters/editors: various.

Reprinting: Generation X #17, Fantastic Four #416, Captain America #454, Untold Tales of Spider-Man #13, Wolverine #102, Daredevil #353, Sensational Spider-Man #8, Thor #502, Onslaught: Marvel Universe

Additional notes: intros by the various writers and sometimes artists.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

In ye days of olde, DC Comics used to publish their annual "Year's Best Digest", reprinting 10 or so stories culled from the previous publishing year. Most collections contained a mix of good stories, O.K. stories, and a few forgettable efforts that were probably included just 'cause the selection editor was friends with the writer or something. But who cared? They made nice little grab-bags of stories, some you might not have picked up on their own, for a cheap, digest price. Eventually DC discontinued its digests, and so to did the "Year's Best" concept disappear.

Then Marvel briefly reprised the idea in the '90s with The Best of Marvel '95, '96 and '97. No longer cheap digests, they were printed as expensive TPBs, but with the same hit and miss quality, and the same appeal of being a handy little sampling of the company's line. But Marvel, too, seems to have stopped.

Why?

Before I get into reviewing The Best of Marvel 1996, I'll just do a little plug for the concept. Not as an expensive TPB, like this, but printed on cheaper paper to keep the price down, or even utilizing a digest-sized format. At a time when the industry is constantly bemoaning its shrinking audience, yearly round ups, collecting better-than-average, relatively self-contained stories from a diversity of titles make a great little advertisement for the titles. A reader buys a "best of" collection, enjoys a character he/she had never tried before, and decides to pick up the monthly comic on the stands. Presto -- instant increase in readership. It alsso might encourage writers and artists to put a little more quality into things on a monthly basis if they knew their stories might have a shot at being selected for inclusion -- maybe. And finally, such collections aare just...fun. A potluck reader of four-colour fantasy, but without the pressure an all time "Greatest" collection is under. Since it's only the "best" of a 12 month period, one can forgive a little chaff in the wheat.

But above all, such collections need to be cheap, since they're more impulse buys than anything.

The above enthusiasm might seem out of place since my actual reaction to The Best of Marvels '96 was decidedly mixed. As is to be expected, there were a couple of really good pieces, some kind run-of-the-mill stories, and some pretty forgettable stuff, too -- most collected from a narrow four month period!

Since this was at a time when Marvel was cancelling a bunch of its titles (not for long, just to re-start them with new numbering and new creative teams) one can infer this wasn't exactly a bumper year overall. In fact, three of the stories selected (Fantastic Four, Captain America, and Thor) are literally from the "last" issue of their respective titles. There's also a chunk of the book devoted to "Onslaught", which was Marvel's epic crossover story for that year -- including reprinting the final, 48 page conclusion to that saga. But it feels too much like we've been dropped down in the middle (which we have), with too much hitting and not enough interesting stuff to make for a self-contained read, and big, splashy art that's kind of confusing, and the story ending in an unsatisfying way.

The best pieces are the FF story and the Wolverine story.

The Fantastic Four is a 10 page short that re-examines a pivotal meeting between Reed Richards and Victor von Doom in their university days. It's not an action piece, or a superhero piece, but Tom DeFalco deftly manages to tell a human drama while instilling in the reader a sense of the possibilities inherent in the title ("Roads Not Taken") -- it's a "What if...?"-style story, even as it doesn't diverge from established continuity. It's oddly compelling. It's also drawn by the great John Buscema, supposedly his swan song before retirement. Though his retirement may've been short-lived since a couple of years later he contributed to stories reprinted in the TPB Thor: The Dark Gods.

The Wolverine story makes effective use of the split between words and pictures that make comics unique among narrative mediums -- a split that is rarely exploited these days. It's basically two stories, one told entirely with pictures, another told entirely in text, both unrelated, but thematically connected. Ironically, writer Larry Hama says in his intro that he had intended the comic just to be the silent, picture story. Had he stayed with that, it would've been just a novelty, rather than this moody, memorable tale.

Other pieces are O.K. but unremarkable. Some, however, are kind of blah. The Daredevil piece marked a (temporary) change of tone, moving DD back to his wise-cracking roots (in a story involving an implied rape and murder!) but isn't much when viewed just as a story unto itself. The Captain America story has him battling baddies in South-East Asia, but it's actually kind of uncomfortable. By virtue of wearing the flag of a specific nation on his costume, Captain America is the one superhero least suited to international adventure. Spider-Man represents Spider-Man, Thor represents Thor, but Captain America represents, if only symbolically, the U.S. government...with all the baggage, good and bad, that entails.

Ultimately, The Best of Marvel '96 starts out kind of fun, like one of those boxes of assorted chocolates, with the reader unsure what each bite will bring. But, I'll admit, assessing my feelings at the end of the book, I was indifferent to more stories than I actively enjoyed.

But halve the cover price and the concept of an annual "best of" collection, from Marvel, DC, etc., is a sound one. This was O.K. as a grab-bag of different stories and heroes, but pricey when only a couple of the pieces really stand out.

Cover price: $27.95 CDN./$19.95 USA.


The Best of the Spirit
is reviewed here


Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds 2004 (SC TPB) 144 pages

Written by Gail Simone. Pencils by Ed Benes. Inks by Alex Lei with Rob Lea.
Colours: Hi Fi. Letters: John Workman, others. Editor: Lysa Hawkins.

Reprinting: Birds of Prey #56-61 (2003) - with covers

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

The Birds of Prey comic book series features the original Batgirl, now a wheelchair bound uber-hacker named Oracle who guides street level operatives, namely the Black Canary and, more irregularly, the Huntress. In an industry that has trouble maintaining female leads, this all-girl team has done pretty well for itself, even having spawned a short-lived TV series. That show fiddled with the concept, namely by making Huntress the central character (and a version of the character that owes little to this one), but other aspects of the comic will seem comfortably familiar to TV fans -- some of the heart-to-hearts between Oracle and Black Canary could easily have been conversations between Oracle and Huntress in the TV series. I mention this because even a poorly rated TV series probably had a larger audience than most comics, and the comic might still benefit from a crossover audience.

The Birds of Prey comic has been a generally well regarded effort if you're looking for breezy, two-fisted action tales, often with foes that are crooks and gangsters rather than "super" villains, and with some emphasis on the buddy bonding between the heroines. This trade paperback collection, Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds, showcases the beginning of a new creative team of writer Gail Simone and artist Ed Benes (and, like a lot of recent TPBs, it's been rushed onto the stands so that, if you pick this up, then run to the local comic shop for the latest issue...you'll only have missed an issue or two in-between).

And, for the most part, it delivers the goods as a breezy, action series with an emphasis on buddy bonding.

The Birds come up against Savant, an unstable villain who's well named; he's almost as smart as Oracle, and as physically tough as Black Canary. His stock-in-trade is blackmail and he captures Black Canary in order to force Oracle to do his bidding, forcing Oracle to call in the Huntress for help.

The "Of Like Minds" story occupies the first four issues, then segues into a two-part tale that stems from the first. That's worth noting because I can sometimes read a TPB collection, getting my taste buds set for a complex, epic saga...only to be a bit put-off when, as here, it turns out actually to be comprised of two shorter, and simpler, stories. The kidnapping isn't the first act in an epic story. Rather, it is the story (well, the first story, anyway). Black Canary is kidnapped, Huntress and Oracle work to rescue her.

Simone writes breezily, with an emphasis on wry humour. The result is both enjoyable...but also a touch light-weight. Simone tells a tale that's fun even though it should seem decidedly unpleasant, involving as it does Black Canary having both legs broken and, later, breaking her own thumb to escape handcuffs! Oracle is worried that the Canary, having been through a similar ordeal (way back in Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters) might be traumatized...but, instead, she remains cheery and unfazed. If this was Daredevil or Batman, it would be treated as a gruelling, gritty saga of human endurance...here, it's all pretty glib. The tone keeps the story from being unpleasant but, I'll admit, one can look back with qualms about Simone's cavalier attitude toward violence.

There's an unbelievable cartooniness throughout...such as a sequence where the Canary, in a wheelchair and with a broken hand, easily trounces three armed thugs.

Still, Simone tells the story well enough, keeping the pace up, and even smartly structuring it so that each chapter has its own narrative focus. The badinage is generally amusing enough and there is some effective quirkiness, particularly involving the villain, as well as his henchman.

The final storyline arises from the first, but leaves a few threads dangling, presumably for later storylines -- though it's not to be continued, per se. Reading on-line descriptions of the next couple of issues, the series seems to start on a new plot line.

The art by Ed Benes and inker Alex Lei borders on a guilty pleasure. Benes is a clean, disciplined artist, nicely handling faces and figures and backgrounds. He has a touch of a Manga style perhaps, with a certain Eurasian cast to all the women, and all the men big and blocky, but not so much so that it slides into caricature. The guilty pleasure comes in because Benes also likes women, or rather, the womanly form. It's interesting how far comics have come (or fallen, depending on your P.O.V.) that where once critics would heap derision on sexploitive comics, this revamped Birds of Prey has been getting mainly good press. Both Black Canary and the Huntress feature costumes with cut-off shorts that could be defined as just a little, ahem, cheeky. And Benes favours low angle shots so that even when focusing on a character in the background, a perky posterior can be featured in the foreground. Granted, Benes avoids endowing his heroines with ridiculous measurements (at least, any moreso than any comic book hero, male or female) and the cheesecake poses at least stem a little from the scenes.

Though I'm ambivalent, what's not to like about beautiful babes in revealing costumes who are given some emotional texture and legitimacy by a female writer? You can respect 'em AND ogle 'em!

All of Benes' women look identical save for their hair. And Simone is also guilty of writing her heroines a little homogeneously. Though, to her credit, amid all the action and glibness, there's some delving into the relationships. As seems to be the overall editorial policy at DC Comics, the characters are portrayed a lot as if they're wisecracking teenagers. At times I wondered if Simone and Benes were angling for a gig doing Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics. I can't say I fully recognized these characters as the Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance I remembered from days gone by.

The fact that the series is written by a woman probably gives it a teflon coating. I mean, with Black Canary spending much of the story bound, battered and stretched out on a bed, with some risqué dialogue, and banter emphasizing the skimpiness of the costumes, it's hard to imagine a man writing this stuff and not getting hauled onto the carpet for sexism.

Simone also has an unfortunate tendency to treat morality as a kind of fluid concept. Sadly, she's not alone. Characters might debate right and wrong, and even argue liberal views...but, in Simone's world view, ethics are just something to be paid lip service to, nothing more.

Ultimately, what can one say? Fun and sexy and well paced, with some quirky twists and turns, this collection actually makes me open to reading further adventures...even as, breezy and superficial as it is, it admittedly falls a bit short of being riveting drama.

Cover price: $22.95 CDN/ $14.95 USA

< Back   Next >

Back to