Mar 31, 2014

Fifteen Panels I Love from Spider-Man vs. Wolverine

Fifteen Panels I Love from Spider-Man vs. Wolverine
Ben Smith

I have the tendency to repeat myself. This is not because I feel like the things I have to say are so important that they require constant repeating, it has mostly to do with my terrible memory. So when I say to you that Spider-Man vs. Wolverine was one of my favorite comics as a younger lad, your response might be “Yes, you’ve told us that a million times before!” or “How did I end up on this page after searching for Wolverine porn?!” but your response should instead be “Okay, I realize his cognitive recall functions are limited to the things he loved as a fourth grader.” Regardless of your specific reaction, I’ve decided to take a look at this comic I read so very many times as a youth. Not quite an in-depth look, but more than a cursory glance. I’m going to sexually harass this comic, instead of my usual full-on sexual assault on the four-color adventures of our spandex-clad friends.

Instead, I will present to you fifteen panels that I loved from this particular oversized gem of a back issue. The first thing I was prepared to love about this comic was the Mike Zeck art. But then I realized that wouldn’t make much sense, because Zeck did not do the art for this issue, so I really have no idea why I wanted to remember it that way. That honor went to the slightly underrated, or even properly rated, Mark Bright. Either way, Mike Zeck rules. Maybe it’s the prominently displayed tombstone on the cover, which makes two great Spider-Man covers that have one on them.

Speaking of covers, the first panel I love from this comic isn’t a panel at all, but the aforementioned lovely cover, which I tried to draw and failed one time. So, thanks for dashing my dreams at such a young age, Mr. Bright. Jim Owsley, later known as Christopher Priest, wrote this issue. I neither love or hate that, it’s just a fact.

In this next panel, Wolverine has just finished killing a bunch of people during one of his patented beserker rages. I miss the days when Wolverine had beserker rages he couldn’t always control, but the primary reason I like that first panel is the way his boot was torn. How does that happen?

The final fate of Sophie and Burt highlight this next string of panels, as I’m sure this excited the portion of young Back Issue Ben’s brain that was (and still is) obsessed with violent death. It’s also worth noting how Peter Parker takes immediate financial advantage of this horrible incident. (One of my greater fears in life is stumbling upon a type of situation like this, because I feel like I would immediately be included as a suspect in the crime, and that would be a tremendous bummer. And, also, the horror of dead human beings, I guess.)

This panel has no great significance on the story, it just looks cool. Or maybe I’m just legitimately addicted to Coca-Cola. I crave it like some people crave cigarettes, or like Duy craves amputees.

Here’s Peter kissing Mary Jane goodbye before he travels off to Germany, on a story with Ned Leeds. They technically weren’t dating at the time, but they would get married not too long after this, because that kind of thing happens. (There’s no way you can convince me that Mary Jane isn’t a “cape chaser” at this point. Peter is legitimately the most depressing guy to be around, this side of Matt Murdock, and he’s hugely self-absorbed. Sure, why not marry that guy?)

Poor Ned Leeds. Most of us that have been deep into the Spider-Man mythos know that Ned was revealed to be the Hobgoblin shortly after this. The most interesting part of the Hobgoblin saga was the behind-the-scenes drama involving the identity of the Hobgoblin. According to Tom DeFalco, when he stepped down as editor during Roger Stern’s tenure on Amazing Spider-Man and became the writer of the book, Stern laid out his plans for the true identity of the Hobgoblin. DeFalco didn’t think Stern’s planned reveals had enough impact, so he proceeded to lay seeds for his own plan. At some point during his run, Owsley (according to DeFalco and other sources) tried to do everything he could to sabotage DeFalco on the book (I believe he had taken over as editor of the series, but don’t quote me on that part). He would repeatedly ask who the Hobgoblin was going to be, and DeFalco eventually relented and lied and told him Ned Leeds, just to get him off his back. Owsley promptly killed Leeds in this one-shot, thinking he was crippling DeFalco’s plans. All involved were soon off the books, and Peter David was tasked with the unenviable job of cleaning up the mess, leading to one of the strangest secret identity reveals in the history of comics. All of which would later be undone by Stern, when he returned to the story ten years later. I love comics!

Peter Parker, unprepared to see action as Spider-Man in this foreign country, tries to track down some work threads, and winds up with a German Halloween costume version of his red and blue duds, much to young Ben’s amusement.

Spidey ends up having to follow Wolverine over the wall into communist East Berlin. To this day, I expect every security wall to have landmines and barbed wire defenses behind it.

Spider-Man comes busting through a hotel window (the second time he’s brazenly destroyed property by jumping through it in this story alone) on the trail of the signal from his spider tracer. Not only does he interrupt the coitus of the two naked individuals in bed, they somehow failed to notice the rather noticeable note Wolverine left in the room for Spider-Man to find.

Spider-Man tracks down Wolverine and Charlie (or Charlemagne as it’s revealed, because “shocking”) to a restaurant, where they’re completely surrounded by the bad guys (in yet another instance which shows Spider-Man to be so much more inept than Wolverine in this story). Charlie pulling up her dress so she can grab the large gun she has holstered to her leg was confusingly appealing to me as a tot.

When I was younger, I had the hardest time figuring out what was happening in this last panel here. I couldn’t decipher it.

Finally, we get to the big fight between the two stars of the book. As I’ve stated many times before, I don’t think Wolverine should have any chance of beating Spider-Man in a fight (reference Secret Wars #3). There might have been a time during my “Wolverine phase” that I thought this was acceptable, but let’s go ahead and chalk that up to the ignorance of youth. Anyway, no way is the guy with unbreakable bones as fast as spider guy.

Healing factor or no, I don’t think anyone smiles off their head getting a superpowered beating into a stone tombstone. I am positive Wolverine’s condescending reaction to Spider-Man’s efforts supremely annoyed me. It’s like someone laughing at you when you’re intensely serious about something, it’s infuriating.

I guess this next sequence is more than one panel, but whatever, I’m not fixing it now. This is an intense sequence of events. Spider-Man with his hands around Wolverine’s neck, Wolverine taunting him to snap it (if he even could, I guess he could?). Wolverine putting his fist to Spider-Man’s chin, threatening to pop his claws, which is probably the first time I saw that. Spider-Man fan aside, even I had to admit that was pretty badass. Plus, I would envision how gross that would be. I know I was morbid!

The big turn of the story comes when Charlemagne sneaks up on a still razzled Spider-Man, and he fatally punches her. A calculated move on her part, as she wanted to die. (Now that I think about it, this book seems like it might have been a bit of an attempt of character assassination towards Spider-Man.) I don’t know exactly what she died of, because she survived long enough to give the tearful goodbye to Wolverine. I’m no doctor, but it seems like fatal blunt force trauma would prevent that, but who am I to really care.

Anyway, Peter spends the rest of the issue a bit traumatized by the event, replaying it over and over in his mind, depicted all with red tones. The color of murder most foul!

That brings us to the end. I didn’t actually thoroughly reread this issue because, who has the time, but I believe it involved KGB agents and espionage most secretive. This is probably what drove me to the book so much as a child, with it being a bit of a departure from most Spider-Man stories I had experienced up to that point. It was a little more violent, seemed a little more “real” and scary. People were dying, characters were murdering them. There was such a somber tone permeating the story throughout. This wasn’t your father’s Spider-Man story!

Or maybe it was as simple as the first superhero I ever loved teaming up with, and then fighting, the second superhero I ever loved (however briefly that second love lasted). You really can’t go wrong with a no-holds barred showdown in the cemetery, especially when it ends with a killing blow stalemate.

I still say Spider-Man won, he pounded Wolverine’s head through a tombstone!

If you’ve never read this story before, do yourself a favor and seek out a copy of your very own. Despite my jokes and sarcasm, it’s well worth the money.

Until next time!

Here's a copy:

Mar 29, 2014

A Spoiler-Free Review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

A Spoiler-Free Review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Ben Smith

I need to adjust my favorite comic book movies list.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is now solidly perched right below The Avengers as my second favorite comic book movie of all time. The only thing keeping me from possibly putting it above the Avengers right now is my need to let it breathe a little bit, and make sure I’m not being ruled by recency.

In a way, they’re not even really comparable movies, that’s why I’m struggling so hard to make the (ever so important) determination in my head on which one I loved more. Avengers was a perfect blending of the spirit of the Marvel comics and the established universe of the Marvel movies, all with terrific action, great humor, excellent character bits, and an end battle that gives me goosebumps every single time. The Winter Soldier, however, is a (as I’m sure you’ve been told a hundred times already) ‘70s political spy thriller, that also doubles as a flawless Captain America movie.

The first Captain America movie gave us a cynicism-free look at a man that wanted to do the right thing, not from some traumatic motivating incident, but just because it was the right thing to do. The sequel gives us that same character, and along with it shows us that Steve Rogers is the kind of person we should all aspire to be. Not in an annoying boy scout goody-two-shoes kind of way either. The Steve Rogers of this movie is a person that people can believe in, trust, and follow. The exact way Captain America would need to be if he existed in real life. He isn’t the boy scout that is so straight-laced that he becomes corny, like Superman. At the same time, he’ll get down into the mud and get dirty when he needs to. This is not a character that pulls his punches with the bad guys that are trying to do innocent people harm.

The fight scenes in this movie are easily the best fight scenes of any superhero movie to date, and better than most action movies in general. Black Widow and Captain America aren’t just knocking the bad guys down, they’re knocking them out, and making sure they aren’t getting back up any time soon. The choreography and power of the hand-to-hand combat is almost stunning in its violence. For a character like Cap, that doesn’t have any specific showy super powers, this is absolutely essential towards showing what sets this character apart from any other generic superhero. In simpler terms, I’ve been watching a decade of these superhero movies and I’ve been waiting to see one of these characters kick some ass. And Captain America does that and more. (Step up your game Batman.)

One of the points I’ve made about the Captain America comics before, is that I think it works best when his supporting cast is other heroes and/or an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. Thankfully, Marvel agreed with me on that point for this movie, and Nick Fury, Black Widow, and the newly introduced Falcon all play key roles. This is the longest, and best look we’ve had yet of the cinematic Nick Fury. Black Widow continues her great turn from Avengers as one of the most complex and intriguing characters in this movie universe, and will only increase the growing clamor for her to get her own solo feature. Anthony Mackie shines as the Falcon, making him a character I really enjoyed in this movie, which is not something I’ve ever said about the Falcon in any context. He’s a good man of principle in his own right, and throughout the course of the movie you can see why Captain America would have this man as his partner, which is not something I can ever say the comics were able to accomplish successfully (to be fair, I haven’t read that many of the comics where they were partners).

One of the bigger (and dumber) complaints about the Avengers is that it didn’t have a deeper meaning, that it was just a summer popcorn movie, unlike the more superficially “meaningful” Dark Knight movies (I disagree on all counts). Society tends to reward dark and violent entertainment as somehow having more weight, or being more worthy of our praise, and I don't know why that is.

Well, for all those people that like their movies to have a bigger message, The Winter Soldier has one (an extremely topical one), and it does it more naturally and with more skill than the beat-you-over-the-head Nolan movies could ever hope to achieve. It’s a seamless, and frankly brilliant, extension of the first movie that fits in perfectly with the world Steve Rogers finds himself in today, and it never feels forced in or out of place. I can’t say more without spoilers, but rest assured that the deeper message spins out of the movie embracing its comic book roots, and is not embarrassed by them as so many prior movies have been.

The Winter Soldier himself, a mystery character already spoiled for most comic book fans, is an unstoppable force of sheer dread. There were a couple times during the movie when I was on the edge of my seat, genuinely not sure how the scene would play out. And the eventual reveal, for anyone that might not already know what it is, is sure to be a satisfying one. (One of the few downfalls of this being the first Marvel movie adapted from a specific storyline. On the other hand, if any comic shop doesn’t sell out of Captain America: Winter Soldier hardcovers after this, they are made of fail.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a massive impact on the landscape of the Marvel cinematic universe going forward. Also, the mid-credits scene, while not as jaw-dropping as the Thanos cameo in Avengers, is so very close to being on that same level in terms of building anticipation (stay for the after credits scene as well).

This movie is about as close to a perfect movie as I think can possibly be made. Both in terms of an entertaining film, and as a representation of the comic book characters I know and love. There’s not many superhero movies I haven’t been able to find at least one minor nitpick with (Cap’s cowl in Avengers) but I honestly couldn’t think of anything like that walking out of this movie.

Unlike any other film, I was completely engrossed in the experience of this movie while watching it. That hasn’t happened to me in a very long time. Even during Avengers, here or there I would think to myself how glad and surprised I was that they pulled it off, or that of course the characters were all going to fight each other first (it’s the Marvel Comics way). If I was distracted at any point in The Winter Soldier, it was about as long as it takes to wonder if they’re going to say Agent 13’s last name or not, and then it was back to the movie. I haven’t had that level of immersion in an entertainment experience since I was probably a very young kid.

What more could you ask for?

Catch up on the movies and/or read the source material here:

Mar 27, 2014

What's Wrong With Steve Rogers?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out next month, so for the entirety of March, all of my articles will be about the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan! Today, we talk about...

What's Wrong With Steve Rogers?
by Duy

Steve Rogers has been cool from the very start. I mean, the guy easily has the coolest cover of the Golden Age.

This cover made a dean at my college give me a job for the summer.
It was awesome.

He punches out Hitler! But all the same, creators don't seem to last long on him, do they? If we look at what seems to me to be the most acclaimed runs on the character, we have the following list.

  • Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (1940s): 10 issues 
  • Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1960s in Tales of Suspense as a co-feature): 41 issues
  • Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1960s): 11 issues
  • Stan Lee and Jim Steranko (1960s): 3 issues
  • Stan Lee and Gene Colan (1960s): 21 issues
  • Jack Kirby (1970s): 21 issues
  • Roger Stern and John Byrne (1980s): 10 issues
  • JM DeMatteis with various artists (1980s): 33 issues
  • Mark Waid and Ron Garney (1990s): 10 issues, then 6 issues
  • Ed Brubaker with various artists (2000s): 25 issues, then a handful of specials and miniseries, and then 19 issues

Now things like 41 issues by Lee and Kirby might sound like a lot, but it's really not when compared to the fact that they worked on over a hundred issues each of Thor and Fantastic Four, and that Tales of Suspense only featured Cap for half the magazine. Actually, even if you look at just Stan, he wrote only 86 Captain America issues straight, which is, really, a low number for Stan.

Ed Brubaker wrote Steve Rogers for 25 issues and replaced him with Bucky, then brought him back later on but kept Bucky in the spotlight. By the time Brubaker put Steve back in the suit, he wrote him for 19 more.

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances. Simon and Kirby only did 10 issues of Captain America for Timely, because that's just the way the business worked back then, with people shuttling back and forth between publishers. According to Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Steranko was fired from it for being late. Stern to the best of my knowledge has never come clean with why his and Byrne's run was so short-lived. Waid and Garney gained momentum as their run went on, but Marvel had to give the character to Rob Liefeld for the moneymaking Heroes Reborn event. When they returned on the character, Marvel replaced him with the more commercial but not-as-good Andy Kubert. JM DeMatteis was let go after his 33rd issue due to editorial differences with Jim Shooter. (His story would have involved Steve dying and getting replaced, so his run on Steve would have been capped at 33 regardless.)

Mark Gruenwald wrote Captain America for 10 years, but while some of his stuff was very well-received, a lot of it was also panned. His "The Captain" storyline is one of the highlights of the characters 73-year existence (and it involves him getting replaced!), while "Capwolf" remains one of the lowest points.

So there's got to be something to all this, since Steve Rogers apparently has a curse that either gets creators to go away or have them make him go away. But what is it? It's kind of unfair to the Greatest Nonpowered Superhero Ever.

So what's wrong with Steve Rogers? I've thought about it long and hard, and I've really just come up with a couple of things.

First of all, he's a Golden Age character. While he's far from being the archetypal Golden Age character (rich playboy who put on a mask to fight crime because he's bored), he's still a Golden Age character not named The Spirit, meaning he's generally flawless. That's a big part of his makeup. That means his motivation is pure (he does the right thing because it's the right thing to do) and any self-doubt is nonexistent. He's as confident as they come, he knows what to do during a fight, and you'd follow him to the depths of Hell if he said he could get you out alive. That's Steve Rogers. If he didn't do that, if he didn't have that confidence, he wouldn't be Captain America.

On the other hand, though, that kind of approach works if you're doing stand-alone stories where the adventure is the point. However, since Marvel got big in the 60s, the format of the continuous narrative has gotten increasingly more traction to the point that it is the norm to stretch out any sort of character arc or development for several years. When a character (or a universe) hits a point that may be deemed stagnant, things are shaken up

Steve Rogers has nowhere to go and no room to grow. As the pinnacle of human perfection, he's already the end product. He's a lot like Thor in that sense, except Thor has the eternal familial conflicts with his father and his brother that will never end and is automatically more open and ripe for future stories. There's already conflict built into Thor's life, while the conflict with Steve is external, and maybe that gets old. Really, how much can one pull off the "man out of time" bit? Before too long, Steve should know how to use an iPad, because he's still in his 20s psychologically and should be able to catch up with technology. How often can Captain America go up against the government or a government agency or SHIELD (as he seems to be close to doing in the upcoming movie) before that gets old for a particular reader? It's the kind of thing you can retread over the course of several years, but it's probably gotten harder to do the more comics have acquired long-term fans and perhaps impossible in today's trade paperback, long-term market.

Our culture now rewards long-term storylines and emotional developments and perhaps Steve Rogers just isn't the guy for that. You can kill off Sharon Carter — as they recently did — but you know she's the love of Steve's life and she'll be back the first time someone's got a good story for her. You can have Steve doubt himself, for the bajillionth time, but he'll snap out of it, always and always.

As a result, going away has kind of become Steve's "thing." Maybe he needs to go away for us to appreciate him, to remember how cool and awesome it is to have such an aspirational character. It's Awesomeness by Omission, as I wrote about last week, the idea that we see what's good about something when it's gone. Steve Rogers is always getting replaced as Captain America — by John Walker, who was too extreme and later became the USAgent; by the Cap of the 50s, who went insane; by Jeff Mace, the Patriot, who tried his best but just wasn't Cap; by Bucky, the Winter Soldier, who just didn't want anyone else to have the shield. These characters are compelling in their own right, and perhaps they're more suited to carrying out a prolonged narrative. (On that note, go read Karl Kesel and Mitch and Bettie Brettweiser's Patriot mini.) But one thing they all have in common is they're not Steve, nor can they be as good as him regardless of how hard they try.

So that's it. That's all I've come up with. I've bounced it around in my head for a while and the best thing I can think of is that Steve Rogers just isn't the kind of guy who's suited to a very long run sustained by one creative team. Maybe the novelty wears off. Maybe it gets too preachy after a while. Maybe people jump off before they get on their soapboxes, which might just mean Cap making speeches about the meaning of America.

There's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes things are better in shorter doses. EC Comics, Whose Line Is It Anyway, a random Peanuts stretch, The Twilight Zone — these are all things that would get old fast if you marathoned them. Perhaps it would serve Steve Rogers if he's more in the background and supporting characters could grow on his watch. Maybe for all that Gruenwald's run is not as loved or acclaimed as the shorter ones I've listed, he had to do a lot of stuff outside of Cap's comfort zone like Superia's Island of Women, Capwolf, and Flag-Smasher (a sound but undeveloped concept) because once he was done with his whole "Steve Rogers gets replaced" storyline, that was it for the "core" Captain America story he could do, and he still ended his run by putting a twist on that concept and removing Cap's powers, putting him in armor and surrounding him with sidekicks that tried living up to his example.

So what's wrong with Steve Rogers? Maybe the problem is there's nothing wrong with Steve Rogers. We, the audience, want something wrong with our protagonists, especially if we're reading them for the long haul, through multiple paperbacks, each and every month. But I still don't want Steve to change. If anything, I'd love to see someone get on him and write him for a long time and reach the same heights of acclaim that runs like Stern and Byrne's, Stan and Steranko's, and Brubaker's have, without replacing Steve Rogers as Captain America, either by being stripped of the identity or by "dying." I'm sure there's a run for that at some point, by someone.

Maybe that someone... could be... you! Or the dude next to you. Or behind you. I'm not picky.

Mar 26, 2014

The Sound of Its Engine

The Sound of Its Engine
Travis Hedge Coke

“Gun oil and gunpowder, my favorite fragrances… I like the smell of this case, too.”
Gunsmith Cats, Revised Edition vol. 1

Gunsmith Cats was Kenichi Sonoda’s outlet for producing stories about sexy people doing badass things with a wide variety of carefully-detailed firearms, explosives, and motor vehicles. In comics, generally all you need to represent a gun is a trigger and a barrel and many many pencilers dislike drawing the complexities of cars, so you get a lot of generalized boxes on wheels. You can tell a Sonoda comic because every gun is specific, each car chosen for its design aesthetic as well as its stats (or whether it’s appeared in a famous movie), but it is the most useful machine of your life, mine, and his, that is shown off the best in Gunsmith Cats: the human being.

Named for the Chicago gun shop and shooting range run by Rally Vincent and her assistant, May Hopkins, most of the comic is motivated by their sideline of bounty hunting and a habit of racking up violent pull-out-all-the-stops enemies. Characters and their tools are treated with the excitement of a little kid who’s just learned how fun it is to use those spring-powered cars you roll back so they’ll throw themselves forward, in order to make two or more cars crash into each other. Even action figures with “action features” can’t really have an elaborate fight, but that’s never stopped children from picking two up and ramming them against each other. Nor, has that ever stopped other kids from making their dolls kiss in roughly the same way. Sonoda, in Gunsmith Cats, is racing his cars into each other, smashing his people against each other.

Sonoda’s comic is as much about the limitations of machinery, including the human body and brain, as he is with the range of pressure they can handle, speeds they can achieve, or inventive novelty uses they can be put to. Rally’s car is jacked up significantly no less than three times in the first six chapters, between being rammed by other cars, shot up, and used as a battering ram to get inside a warehouse quickly. It can be repaired, of course, as soon as parts are available and someone has time to install them. When human beings are jacked up, though, shot, mutilated, or simply disturbed, they take longer to recover. You can’t just jam a new hand on someone and all’s better, or install new ribs and slap a new panel where the bruises are.

Rally and her partner and best friend, May do some ridiculously amazing things over the course of the comic, like Rally’s signature move of shooting the hammer off the other person’s gun, but these abilities, like all of Bean’s ridiculous arsenal or Gray or Bonnie’s weaponized prostheses, are treated as novelties. Rally can shoot the hammer off a pistol, yeah, but she’s got to have a great firearm, a clean shot, little in the way of distractions, and mostly she’s just shooting at the gun. Bean surviving being shot up more than once because he’s walking around in body armor even though he’s just going to a strip club is less than miraculous given that he just always walks around wearing armor in his clothes.

Even if you are really good at something, significantly practiced, some dirt in your eyes, bruised ribs, a bad morning, or a death in the family can completely take you off your game. Most action stories focus on people putting all that aside and batting a thousand anyway, but human beings don’t work that way. You can’t just turn your emotions off or “ignore the pain” and act with total accuracy as if the pain isn’t indicative of physical damage. If you lose a thumb or a friend, it hurts, and that pain is real. It will affect you. Which, shouldn’t need spelling out, but genre conventions say you can ignore these things. “Cool guys don’t look at explosions,” right? They always look away and walk calmly and slowly from the bomb. There’s a reason Will Ferrell made fun of that so hard.

But, Gunsmith Cats isn’t a bunch of weepy people wincing as they pull their triggers and crying into their cordite. Gunsmith Cats moves faster, smoother, and more dynamically than any motion comic ever, and more than most movies, when you get down to it. Car chases are fast, intense, and when the car drifts or turns or brakes there is momentum, there is force. If you want to turn left hard and at high speed, you have to be prepared to have your body thrown, in the car, to the right. And, you can’t let go of the wheel.

What’s cool is seeing them handle that, take the pressure, take the turns, and keep one foot on the gas and one hand out the window to pitch a grenade back at the bastards in the van with the absurdly high-end engine gaining from behind. When Rally, hands tied in front of her, gets a small pistol and shoots, at close range, both of her captors (prompting them to shoot straight across at each other, there’s just as much chance she’ll get shot, but it’s a chance and she takes it. And, because she’s got her hands tied and she’s holding a little holdout piece, when more guys come with machineguns, she doesn’t stand there firing, she runs for cover and doesn’t look back. Rally and May take huge risks, they kick a lot of ass, but they’re not stupid. They’re not suicidal.

Well, they’re not that suicidal.

The villains build, over time, starting from the psychotic Bonnie and the super angry bully from hell, Gray, who loses a hand and replaces it with a big fucking knife that he puts on a car spring so it can launch off. That’s coping right there. Mad coping skills. They climax, for me, with Goldie, the drug-dealing Mafioso murderer with a harem of brainwashes sex servants, assassins, and human shields. Something weird happens between the time Sonoda stopped doing Gunsmith Cats and when he returned for a couple short stories and then Burst: Bonnie becomes the devil you know. She has her own, often unwilling trajectory towards maturation, and her rage and competitiveness are something Rally can sympathize with even if she doesn’t want to. This is a woman who destroyed Rally’s father’s life, inadvertently also shaping Rally’s, a hateful, rape-happy horror, but she’s also acting out of desperation to prove herself, and conviction that her way is better.

Should that stop a hero from doing right? No, it shouldn’t. But it can. And, more, Goldie, eventually, is so big how do you take her out? Her whole deal is that she’ll put anyone in front of her to stop a bullet. She’ll drug up a teenager and send her out holding a pistol to her head, ready to kill herself for Goldie. She’ll send out cannon fodder in waves. Blow up an office building. Rape your daddy right in front of you and dare you to do a damned thing about it.

Sometimes, a crime is so big, society works smoother if you ignore the crime. Sometimes a crime is so small, it’s easier to let it go than spend time and money and risk death to shut it down. Crime isn’t monolithic, it’s not “the other side of the fence.” It’s something we are all complicit in, from jaywalking and downloading illegal mp3s to holding a friend’s pot stash for a week or taking a cut from a prostitution ring, buying illegally modified guns, bombing a country, killing your neighbor. There’s a difference in scale, of course, between all these crimes, and there are levels of complicity, but that scale is often internally appraised. We know the law’s gradation, but we, too, each know our internal scale, our own limitations, what we can do casually, what we can do under pressure, and what we just don’t want any part of.

Even early on, Rally and May find that no matter how slimy the criminal, there’s no reason someone on the side of the law might not ally themselves with the bastards. Police chiefs, security guards, district attorneys, governors, attorneys… housewives, accountants, and waitresses… anyone can act criminally. Anyone can betray their basic ethics for “the bigger picture,” all it takes is convincing them. Some do it for more money, some do it to save lives, to avoid pain, because they’re mad. You don’t trust people, or work with them, because you know they can’t ever betray you. Trust and cooperation are committed to despite never being able to fully know if someone else is on your side or being entirely honest.

Rally and May break tons of laws, themselves, as do most of their friends. Law, itself, is never positioned as a holy or great thing in Gunsmith Cats, but as a system. As long sas the system is workable, it’s worth committing to, but where it is less beneficial, it can be circumvented or fought against, and they do. May’s boyfriend made bombs for terrorists and mobsters, and shacked up with her when she was thirteen. Rally has a small arsenal of illegal firearms stashed away. Bean “Mister Big Jaw” Bandit is a professional getaway man. Rally’s police contact, Roy, pretends very well to not notice she’s using fake ID, only nineteen, and constantly acting out of her jurisdiction. Roy seems not to care so much that she’s breaking the law, but he clearly worries when she’s risking her safety or endangering her health. Roy’s old enough to know that no nineteen year old knows everything, but he’s also old enough to know that him having a good number of years on Rally does not mean he knows her situation better than Rally herself might.

About friends and family, law and order, contracts and stand offs, Gunsmith Cats has some of the finest shootouts and best car chases and coolest fights in all of comics. It supports this mix of human interaction and high-octane violence by having everyone act as robustly individual as people do in real life. Each and every character in the comic, from bounty hunters and lawyers to burglars, hookers, and little kids act as if they are the star in a production of One Woman’s War. May is the hero of her own story. Bean’s life is one big action movie with him in the title role. Rally has lived, and will always live fighting. For none of them, is it ever a case of “what can people do for me,” even if they ally with others or use others. It’s “what can I do,” through and through. It’s about taking action.

Mar 24, 2014

The Winter Soldier: I Want to Have Brubaker's Fictional Comics Babies

The Winter Soldier
I Want to Have Brubaker's Fictional Comics Babies
Captain America Month
Ben Smith

Slightly inappropriate homosexual sentiments aside, Ed Brubaker is one of my favorite writers working in comic books today. Ever since he began at Marvel, working on a lower tier character named Captain America (If this doesn't get Ben hate mail, I give up. -Duy), I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything he’s produced.

Of course there is the partnership with artist Sean Phillips, which almost always produces gold (Criminal is simply amazing), and there was also The Marvels Project and Secret Avengers. Whatever contribution he made to the legendary Immortal Iron Fist cannot be appreciated enough by a diehard Fist junkie like myself. Any fan of the Fraction and Aja Hawkeye book should be able to understand the sheer brilliance of that Iron Fist book (I want to adopt Aja, I don’t care how old he is, we have a spare Thomas the Train bed).

But arguably his crowning achievement at Marvel was his seven plus year run on Captain America. A run that couldn’t have started more spectacularly with the introduction of the Winter Soldier.

I’m not going to discuss these comics in my usual level of detail, because frankly that just sounds exhausting, but there will be spoilers ahead. You have been fairly and justly warned.

As I’ve stated before, I was never a big fan of the Avengers or their family of titles as a kid, so when I read this book my love and knowledge of Captain America was low. I considered him the de facto leader of the Marvel universe, and equally as boring as that type of character sometimes tends to be. Brubaker not only had a deep and long-lasting love of the character, having grown up reading him from base to base as an Army brat (or was it Navy?), but he did the best thing any writer could possibly do, and that was spread that love of the character onto the readers. I was not immune, and I caught the Captain America virus as quickly and thoroughly as the any number of viruses Duy catches on his “walk” home from work.

One of the great things Brubaker did was establish a strong and interesting supporting cast. The way he was able to slowly establish Sharon Carter as the love interest in the book was impressive. Even more impressive since, unknown to me, she hadn’t really been a factor in the books since the ‘70s, until the mid-‘90s. Realizing that, years later, was somewhat surprising, because she just seemed to be so perfect in that role.

On the other side of the playing field, you can’t have Captain America without the Red Skull. Much like Magneto with the X-Men, I’m perfectly fine with the Red Skull playing a frequent role in the Captain America books. He cannot wear out his welcome to me. Brubaker basically uses him as a supporting character over the first 40 or so issues of his run, which is an excellent way to handle it, I think. Interestingly enough, he does this by “killing” the Skull in the first issue, and established former Russian General, Aleksander Lukin, as the main antagonist. Cleverly enough, it’s eventually revealed that the Red Skull lives on in Lukin’s head, thanks to the Cosmic Cube he was holding at the time of his “death.”

Here’s a great flashback scene from World War II, where Captain America makes sure the cocky Russian general knows who’s going to be calling the shots in battle, which is how I like my Cap.

(Also a key moment for the modern day story, as the general was a mentor of Lukin, and Lukin’s family was killed as a result of said battle.)

Crossbones and Sin were two characters I had absolutely no history with, and they proved to be two entertainingly psychotic figures. Crossbones just has that very appealing design, with the military vest and the skull mask. (The skull mask seems to be a very tricky thing to pull off. It works for me on Crossbones, but not so much on Taskmaster. I can’t dissect the formula, but maybe it’s the hood. Or maybe you just can’t go full skull, but then again, Red Skull works for me too.) I love it when artists draw freckles on the characters, I just think it looks so adorable, and Sin benefits from that.

Nicky Fury (I have no clue if Ben made a typo there or if it was intentional. Either way, I like "Nicky Fury" and am not fixing it. -Duy) would play a prominent role early on, and I prefer that approach to the supporting cast of Captain America more than anything else. I really don’t need scenes of Steve Rogers trying to pretend he’s normal with his neighbors, or dating Bernie what’s-her-face (Rosenthal! She's a lawyer now! And she was a Stern/Byrne! I can't take Smith anywhere! -Duy). Just make Cap’s supporting cast other heroes. It works best to me.

This is even more evident following Steve’s “death,” when Brubaker expertly weaved The Falcon, Tony Stark, and Black Widow into the ongoing cast, truly making it an ensemble book. Them being able to go for basically a year without a Captain America in the Cap book was pretty impressive.

That brings us to the defining legacy of Brubaker’s time as writer of the Captain America books, and possibly of his entire time at Marvel, The Winter Soldier. Brubaker was able to successfully do what many other previous creators had attempted to do, and that was revive Bucky and make him a relevant character in the modern era. In the process, he shattered the old adage “at Marvel, only Uncle Ben and Bucky stay dead.”

This was done so expertly that I don’t think anyone that has actually read it can objectively say otherwise. It proved so popular, that it has already become the storyline of the second Captain America major motion picture.

Like I said, I was never a big Captain America fan, so I didn’t understand the viewpoint that some fans have about Bucky being dead being so essential to the character of Cap. It was the subject of many Stan Lee soliloquies when they revived the character in Avengers #4, but it’s not his driving force for heroism in the way Uncle Ben is for Peter Parker. It was never a sacred egg for me, other than I always considered Bucky to be pretty lame, and why would you want to resurrect him. So, essentially, that becomes step one.

Brubaker turned Bucky into the ultimate deadly covert soldier. He was the advance scout sent ahead of the team to silently eliminate as many threats as possible. While this level of violence and realism is often a deterrent to me in my advancing (get off my lawn!) age, it worked perfectly here. It was World War II. The Gruenwald-ian notion that neither of those guys killed any hostile combatants is frankly insulting to the real men and women that had to fight in that war, or any war.

One of the great things about resurrecting Bucky, was the way Brubaker slowly rolled it out. Instead of it being the big splashy reveal in the first issue of the newly relaunched title, he teased it out over the course of the beginning arc.

In this early scene between Lukin and the Red Skull from Captain America #1, we get our first glimpse of the unknown Winter Soldier. Something you might not even notice without the knowledge of what is to come (I certainly didn’t).

Later, we get a hint that there might be someone out there with a grudge towards the men who replaced him as Captain America, William Naslund and Jeff Mace, when Steve discovers that their gravestones have been vandalized.

When Jack Monroe, the Bucky of the 1950s (and Nomad to us 90s kids! -Duy), is ambushed and killed in a parking lot, his “Do I know you?” question to the unseen killer was another early clue.

Sharon is later ambushed in Philadelphia by the same man sporting a metal left hand.

Nick Fury provides the first hint at the existence of The Winter Soldier, with a file on his desk and a heavy heart about what it might mean for Steve.

The big reveal comes in Captain America #6, when Bucky is identified as the mysterious assassin named The Winter Soldier.

Captain America, and the readers, were left to wonder if this was yet another fakeout. But as the subsequent storyline revealed, Bucky was recovered by the Russians following the accident with the drone plane. They revived him, brainwashed him, and then used him as their ultimate secret weapon, taking out key targets throughout the years of the Cold War, before being returned to cryogenic stasis.

Steve was able to restore Bucky’s memory using the Cosmic Cube, and the long road to redemption began, eventually leading to Bucky taking over the role of Captain America following Steve’s “death.” Bucky proved to be a fairly popular Cap, with many fans preferring he kept the role once Steve returned.

Steve Rogers' death was the first comic book death to really capture the attention of the mainstream media since the Death of Superman in the ‘90s. Other subsequent comic book deaths would be spoiled in the newspapers following Steve Rogers, including Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm and Peter Parker (twice).

This has led to a popular sentiment among online fans that they’re tired of the sensationalist meaningless deaths. As I’ve argued before, the deaths are never meaningless if we get real emotions from them, and most importantly, if they make for entertaining stories. There aren’t many stories that can claim to be more entertaining than this mega-epic Brubaker put together.

No more evidence is needed for proof of that, than when all the fans that were simply “outraged” at the return of Bucky, or the death of Steve, were many of the same fans that wanted Bucky to stay as Cap after Steve’s resurrection.

If you can turn a fanbase around like that, then you have something truly special, my friends.

You can get started on Ed Brubaker's Captain America run with these three trades:

Mar 22, 2014

Seven Things People Need to Stop Saying

Sometimes, comics fans tend to lose track of the bigger picture. We get a certain view of what comics should be like and then we complain when that doesn't meet our expectations and we complain when it does. This is borne out of a set of contradictions: comics fans keep saying they want change, and then we go insane when change happens.

Don't worry. I'm here to put it all into perspective!

Seven Things People Need to Stop Saying
by Duy

#1: This is all a gimmick to get us to buy things!

You hear it pretty much all the time when a big new development happens. "What? They're killing Peter Parker? Gimmick!" or "Dick Grayson is Batman now? Gimmick!" And sure, maybe it's true that some things start off because of some gimmickry, but that doesn't mean the story's not worth telling. And also, here's the thing: this has been happening for decades.

There are two big differences now from the way things have traditionally been. The first is that everything has a wider reach now. You can blame social media for that, but the fact is that people talking about things will help sell it. And I know for a good portion of you reading this, what I just typed is a terrible thing, because comics are art, dammit and shouldn't be influenced by anything other than quality, but you know that's not the way things work and that if things don't sell, it can't keep being made.

(While we're at it, can we also stop with "This crappy comic keeps selling while this comic I don't like has low sales"? If anything, the profits from the crappy comic is helping your non-selling comic stay in print. At least, that makes some sort of business sense.)

If it were today, this would be a gigantic development that would give way to a bunch of "How dare you do this to Peter!" letters.

And who's to say it didn't? Have you read letter pages from back then? They sound a whole freaking lot like a bunch of the complaints now. So in terms of that, the nature of the industry didn't change; the channels and the exposure did. It's still about cliffhangers and developments that look permanent and most likely aren't. Mike Carlin said in Panel Discussions that they couldn't kill Superman without a fully formed plan, right up to after they brought him back, that was approved by the higher-ups at Warner Brothers.  In contrast, Kevin Smith said when he was slated to write Amazing Spider-Man that the whole "Mary Jane was missing" thing was a way to keep Peter single without making him divorced or a widower. That kind of thing comes from the top. That's the nature of the business, and railing against that kind of thing is just a moot point. Warner Brothers and Disney aren't going to care about the railing rants of hardcore fans who are going to keep buying the product anyway; they're just going to keep doing what they think is best for business and getting new readers.

The other big difference right now is that stories are longer, so there's a longer illusion of permanence when things like Superior Spider-Man happen, leading us to...

#2. Back in my day, you could tell a story in (insert an arbitrary small number of issues/pages here)!

Okay, yeah, we're all guilty of this. Let's stop it right now. Back in the 40s, 20 pages was long for an adventure story, and it had to be an epic if it were that long. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were revitalizing superhero comics in the 60s, they were getting letters about how Marvel didn't have as much story, and Stan would put in captions about how that was probably true, but the art and the energy made up for it. This scene by Steve Ditko was definitely decompressed by 1966 standards and is likely still decompressed by today's standards, and I wouldn't change a thing about it.

Could Ed Brubaker tell a story in a shorter number of pages? Sure, but Criminal wouldn't have the same kind of punch. Could Brian Bendis write more compressed scenes? Sure, and I wish he did. I also wish Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams had a bit more space for their Batman stuff, since a lot of the time it seemed they got to page 20 and went "Oh, crap, we've only got two pages left!" There isn't one answer, no one hard and fast rule for this kind of thing. Pacing is, like everything else, a matter of execution. If there were a formula to this, these guys would all be millionaires.

Here's another thing. If you've ever spoken to writers or artists or other creative types, you'll know that most of them set constraints first before they start anything. It's a part of the process. When Rachel Helie was still writing Double Helix for the Cube, the first thing she'd always ask for was a word count quota she should target. And yeah, that's normal. Constraints are there to be met, and that's part of the creative exercise. As time has gone by, those constraints have gotten bigger. And that's okay. That's not to say shorter stories can't be written. It's just to say that the average space is different now. And that's the nature of any industry — a continuous evolution.

#3. How dare it play off the movie!

Every time a movie comes out, the source comic plays off of it, and fans go apeshit. "Amazing Spider-Man #1 comes out the same month as the movie and has Electro, just like the movie? How con-veeeee-nient!" Let it go, guys.

Marvel and DC, more than other companies due to their massive multimedia presence, meet at the intersection of art and commerce, and in an ever-declining industry, it would be dumb, businesswise, to not capitalize off of the cross-platforms. Whether or not this actually works is a matter of debate, but the companies have the numbers and I doubt that they would continue with the practice if it weren't at least yielding some additional profit.

The thing about this that gets me, really, is that in the long run, it's irrelevant. A lot of people are buying the trades now, and shit, a lot of people are still buying the single issues just to have and not to read. So if anything, you should blame those guys, the type who'll actually buy this comic and have its price marked up so much in the back issue bins just because the cover has a resemblance to a scene in a movie.

But yeah, people are buying trades now. The whole "playing off the movie" thing is fleeting. I read Thor: Accursed last week in hardcover, and I didn't even remember, at all, that when it started, people were complaining that the only reason Jason Aaron was using Malekith was because he was the villain in The Dark World. It's irrelevant once the movie is over. If it can cause some increase in interest when it comes out in single issues, then why not go for it? If anything, they should place the product placement story early on, so that the trade comes out in mass market bookstores when the movie is out.

As long as the story is sound, what's the harm?

#4. How dare it renumber!

People hate it when titles get renumbered, but again, like playing off the movie, it doesn't matter in the long run. If #1 issues can get new readers, then why not go for it? There's speculation that Lady Sif's run in Journey Into Mystery, by Kathryn Immonen and Valerio Schiti, would have been longer than it was if it had rebooted and been rebranded as Marvel Now title. I'd rather get new readers than pander to the anal-retentive comics-bin organizing of existing fans. How your comics are organized is not the problem of the company's, and I really don't see the value of keeping an existing numbering system if it's holding back exposure and maybe blocking off new readers.

In fact, forget keeping a numbering system or renumbering; I say just relaunch everything with every story arc and just give it a subtitle.

#5. Marvel should reboot!

This is the kind of complaint that you hear from hardcore fans who can no longer see the forest for the trees. DC rebooted and provided clear jumping on points, so of course Marvel should reboot, because, when you've been around for fifty years, there will be contradictions and you'll need to do some fixes. Iron Man's war was originally Vietnam, and now it's not. Reed Richards used to fight in World War II. Spider-Man used to be married and now never was. But... it's an untenable suggestion. It doesn't work.

The main reason it doesn't work is that even when you reboot, you will eventually get back to that point. You may be easy to jump on now, but developments will happen, contradictions will arise, you'll need to fix things again, and if you're DC, you just end up rebooting again and you have the same kinds of problems you had before. Even the Ultimate Universe, launched just this century so that new readers would have a whole new universe with a fresh start to follow, eventually became this history-heavy universe that was no longer so much fresher a jumping-on point as the regular Marvel Universe was.

Reboots lead to reboots, and it greatly discounts reader's abilities to jump into the middle of a story. How many times did you jump into the middle of a movie and followed it just fine? How many TV shows did you get into way after the first episode? I started watching Buffy at Season 4 and when I started reading comics, I knew what Earth-2 was and sometimes Spider-Man wore red and blue and sometimes he wore black. The term in medias res exists because you can actually start at the middle of a story when writing it. And as long as writers and creators make each story accessible, it doesn't need to start from the beginning every time.

Now you may be saying, "But you just spent a kajillion words talking about how it's important to get new readers, and reboots get new readers!" Yeah, they do. For a while. But unlike renumbering or playing off a movie, it doesn't just pass once it's done and may in fact just lead to more reboots in the future, as it has with DC. It would have to be really worth it to do, and yield sustainable and substantial long-term benefits. And like I said, after a couple of years, it's no longer "fresh" anyway.

#6. What is this diversity!

It's one of the universal complaints when a minority character gets introduced. Kevin Keller, the new Ms. Marvel — whatever it is, if it's a minority, people get up in arms, some even saying that these characters are just there to meet some sort of political correctness quota.

Diversity requires conscious effort. Sorry, it just does. It would be easy to create all-white, all-male, all-straight characters all the time, but that's not the way the world works and people should see themselves represented. So if you're really complaining about this kind of thing because you're a cynic, just realize you're complaining about diversity. That's what you're complaining about. You are complaining that people of other skin colors, orientations, religions, and other such categorizations are getting represented. If you really are complaining about that kind of thing, if that offends you so much, then I hope you can find happiness somewhere far, far away from me.

When Ultimate Spider-Man killed off Peter Parker a while back to replace him with Miles Morales, I spoke to one African-American kid who told me that Miles Morales was the first hero he found himself able to relate to. And that's cool. I'm glad that happened. And I'm glad Richard Pace overheard this at his local comics shop.

Finally, if you're complaining about diversity, just know two things: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were two of the biggest proponents of diversity of their era, introducing black characters like the Black Panther and Joe Robertson and Wyatt Wingfoot, and that when the following characters came out, a bunch of bigots probably complained and spoke about affirmative action and everything.

Shit, let's just look at a letter Charles Schulz got shortly after he introduced Franklin in Peanuts.

In today's "Peanuts" comic strip Negro and white children are portrayed together in school.
School integration is a sensitive subject here, particularly at this time when our city and county schools are under court order for massive compulsory race mixing.
We would appreciate it if future "Peanuts" strips did not have this type of content.
Thank you.

Now imagine just how stupid they look in hindsight.

Really, really stupid.

#7. Lebron James can defend every position on the floor! This has never been done before!

First of all, Lebron can defend every position on the floor because the league is significantly smaller now than it was in previous decades. The height difference between the league's premiere center and its two premiere small forwards isn't huge. Next of all, Lebron couldn't defend Roy Hibbert (too tall), Tony Parker (too good), and Tim Duncan (too good and too tall), so the whole "defends every position" thing is suspect. He could defend non-all-star power forwards and centers who are actually power forwards playing the center position.

Next of all, stop it. Scottie Pippen still existed.

Mar 20, 2014

On the Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out next month, so for the entirety of March, all of my articles will be about the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan! Today, we talk about...

The Winter Soldier
by Duy

Spoiler Warnings: Don't read on if you don't know anything about the Winter Soldier and want to go into the movie cold. Just bookmark this post and read it once you've seen the movie!

In many ways, The Winter Soldier is the little superhero concept that could. Bucky Barnes, the World War II sidekick of Captain America, had been dead since before the war ended, a victim of the same accident that tossed Cap in the ice. (In the movies, it's similar — Bucky falls to his "death" just a few days or weeks before Steve Rogers plunges into the ice.) When Cap was brought back into the Marvel Age in 1964, Bucky stayed dead as Stan Lee, for one, was against the concept of kid sidekicks in general. This isn't surprising considering that a kid sidekick's primary narrative purpose is really just to give kids an identification point, and this was certainly at odds with Marvel's objective to deliver a more "realistic" product. Bucky's death also provided Steve with a pathos that kind of helped to carry him for a bit in his initial Silver Age run.

Over the years, a kind of "rule" came about in comics fandom, especially as resurrections became more and more common. That rule saw a lot of variations over the years, but the gist of it was that "Only Bucky stays dead." (Some variations include "Only Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben stay dead" and "Only Bucky and Gwen Stacy stay dead.") It's an exaggeration, of course, as a lot of characters have to stay dead to remain effective, such as Batman's parents and Spider-Man's uncle, but the point is, for a very long time, it was just accepted that there was no bringing Bucky back.

But sometimes all you really need is the right creator, the right twists, and the right push, and you can break these otherwise arbitrary rules. Ed Brubaker clearly loved Bucky, saying in his "A Goodbye to Cap..." essay that showed up in his last issue that he first encountered Cap and Bucky through one of the 60s cartoons. This one, specifically:

Like Bucky, Brubaker was a military brat, but Brubaker states that he just simply liked the idea that next to a super-soldier was a "well-trained kid with a machine gun and an attitude." So when Brubaker got the assignment of writing Captain America in 2004, he wanted to bring Bucky back.

Fortunately for him, and for comic book readership in general, then-editor-in-chief Joe Quesada was behind him all the way, giving him Steve Epting (his first choice) for an artist, and lining up other artists with similar styles, such as Michael Lark and Butch Guice, to maintain a visual consistency whenever Epting needed some help. The result is one long story that could easily fill up an entire bookshelf, with a clear narrative and visual flow. This is impressive in and of itself, but especially if you realize that it involves the return of Bucky. Bucky, for whom there existed a no-resurrection rule until they decided it was time to break it.

Alan Moore, apparently, was criticized for changing too much of Swamp Thing, but as he points out, "Unless I understood the tradition of Swamp Thing, how could I ever come up with exactly the right sort of twist to put in them?" In that vein, you can tell that Brubaker was a fan of both Captain America and Bucky because he was able to find just the right twists to put on the story — which is actually highlighted more when you consider the fact that at pretty much the same time, DC Comics brought back Jason Todd, the second Robin, in a similar plotline where he was after Batman. Two similar controversial premises, and one is now going to be a big blockbuster movie while the other one, while not largely forgotten, has more receded in significance after nine years.

Brubaker's twists were just right and, in many ways, so blindingly obvious. Bucky Barnes was a kid who ran around with Captain America, so he could keep up with a super-soldier. Logically, that just makes him the greatest natural fighter that's ever been born. Bucky carried a machine gun around, whereas Cap did not, so he did the dirty work that Cap, as a symbol and point of morale, couldn't do. These were so obvious and such easy ways to get past the perceived "lameness" of Bucky. In fact, just by introducing those elements, Bucky immediately goes from "stereotypical superhero lame sidekick" to someone you absolutely have to respect and a very real threat.

Here's a twist I really like. In the Marvel Earth, Captain America Comics #1 is, ostensibly, the same as the one on our real Earth. It's the official cover story for wartime Marvel Americans, and the twists Brubaker put in (Bucky wasn't a kid anymore, for example) made it so that the "real" Cap #1 has more in common with that cover story than the actual story being told.

So when Brubaker begins his run and all this backstory with Bucky is filled in, you realize what a threat he really is and really can be when he shows up as the Winter Soldier. Fished out of the ocean by the Soviets and brainwashed into being their assassin, kept young by cryogenics in specific periods over the years, the Winter Soldier remembers nothing about his past, but his muscle memory is intact. With his left arm replaced by a cybernetic prosthetic, Bucky has become one of the very few people that can pose a legitimate threat to Captain America. And you know, that's good stuff. After years of Steve beating himself up over Bucky's death, it turns out Bucky's alive, and suffering a fate that might be considered worse.

When Bucky finally does get his memory back, his actions as the Winter Soldier don't leave him, and he's haunted by guilt. He eventually ends up having to take over as Captain America in the much-publicized "Death of Captain America" storyline a few years back, and that gave us some pretty good stories until Marvel put Steve back in the uniform.

Still, Marvel, Ed Brubaker, and company managed to make Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier a viable character moving forward, and The Winter Soldier storyline is now the basis for the upcoming movie. That's the first time ever that a Marvel-produced movie is directly based on just one specific storyline instead of being an amalgam of multiple storylines. Somehow, The Winter Soldier has taken the steps to become an evergreen book.

The Black Widow is also a major part of the story, in case you guys were
wondering why Natasha/Scarlett was in the movie.

Considering that it all revolves around a character that the comic book industry and fandom long regarded as unusable, I'd say that's pretty impressive.

You can start reading Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and company's run on Captain America in the following books:

Mar 19, 2014

Build a Batman

Build a Batman
Travis Hedge Coke

It’s story time! Let’s read Return of Bruce Wayne together! (Or, you can just sit there and read about me reading it. That works, too.)

Batman is awesome. Even people who hate Batman stuff actually like Batman, they just don’t like the execution, or the ephemera. If you truly and totally dislike Batman, you’ve rejected humanity. (This column will have hyperbole. Batman necessitates hyperbole.) But, why? It’s easy to love Batman, but difficult to, sometimes, justify loving Batman. Or, to explain the attraction. If John McClane or Han Solo suddenly dressed like a bat, they’d be less than cool. How long would Dorothy Gale or Norm MacDonald be worth watching, if they swore to fight crime after seeing their folks gunned down on a latenight Gotham street?

If your best friend had billions of dollars but only employed one old man to clean his mansion, man cave, thirty-five cars, made him perform surgeries by himself, check messages, manage his schedule, select his clothes, cut his hair, and coach him in being a decent human being, plus cook all the meals? Your friend would be a jerk. Batman, though, needs an Alfred.

Grant Morrison said Return of Bruce Wayne, his examination of what makes Batman Batman by throwing him around in time, setting him on fire, shooting him, and generally slapping him around, is some of his tightest writing, and it probably is. There is a ridiculous depth and complexity in what appears to be a simple gimmick comic, and let’s hope Batman is so Batman that it justifies the efforts.

So, before we begin reading, let me say Batman!

And, now, let’s read…

Chapter 1: Shadow on Stone

Pg 2-5 – The comic begins with some guys following bat-looking shadows and boot-prints in the mud, until they get to a cave. Bat symbols, bat silhouettes are fun to draw. They’re like making those V-shaped birds (that also appear in these pages), but have more points on them. And, let’s face it, the bat silhouette is the easiest thing to associate with Batman, even before the mask or “My parents are dead!” And, who is Batman, if not a dude with bats who comes out of a cave? So, that is exactly how Batman shows up, a dude, in tights, coming out of a cave full of bats to do justice.

Pg 6 – Batman, who has amnesia, sees a guy called “Joker,” who laughs, and he glares at him. Because of Law of Batman #1: Batman is an awkward judge of character.

Pg 10 – A dead father, a dead mother, and some (Flintstones’ style) pearls on a necklace. It’s how Batman came to be, in the brain and heart of a little boy, as we get reminded in every single Batman movie, and it’s also how Batman comes in, here, in Return of Bruce Wayne.

Pg 11 – The kid, here, has just lost his grandfather, his dad is clearly grieving, and yet, his main concern is “How will I ever be a man?” How much of Batman is just that? Just a young kid, unable to deal with kneeling in his parents’ blood, trying to be a man?

Is Batman a man? Is he more than a man? Real people can’t ever do all Batman does, right? Even stripped down versions of Batman are still bigger and stronger and more resilient than us, right?

The kid’s dad tells him there’s “not much to being a man,” and points out that Batman still needs to eat. Batman does sleep, he does get hungry, and…

Pg 12 – And, Batman does get hurt. The classic Year One makes a big deal of how mortal Batman is, how easy to get severely injured it is in his lifestyle, and here we see the first of many injuries to Bruce in this comic, as he takes an arrow to the shoulder, saving the kid.

Pg 13 – And, the kid loses his dad. Everyone knows Bruce’s parents were murdered and he became Batman, many remember that Robin, as well, loses his parents before Bruce takes him in and helps him become Robin, but is the loss necessary? Is putting on a mask and fighting back against villainy warranted by grieving? Is it just about grief?

Pg 16 – The first villain of Return of Bruce Wayne, Vandal Savage, is emblematic of “the first villain.” He’s caveman evil. He’s Cain. He’s Proto-Bastard. And, he not only killed a giant bat-monster before, he’s hung it up as a furry scarecrow to terrify his follows and Bruce Wayne, who he’s tied down to die staring at it.

A famous Batman quote is regarding criminals being a fearful and superstitious lot, justifying his bat-costume and themes. Is Batman just a scarecrow for criminals? Is the bat-signal up against the clouds just as terrifying and crime-preventative as Batman, himself? Is a seven foot tall bat-monster’s head and hide up on a stick as scary as, or scarier than a man in a pointy-eared mask with a yellow belt and themed boots?

Pg 19-20 – “Eat his brains.” “Break his back.” Everything Savage and his people suggest to end him are things that Bruce Wayne has faced before and bounced back from. While his gang say “nothing can kill” their boss, and yes, he’s revealed to be functionally immortal, Bruce cannot be permanently ended either, because a) he’s the goddammed Batman and b) he’s protected by a commercial necessity to keep telling Batman stories.

And, crucifying Batman? Tying out Batman, arms out, legs spread, bleeding and confused? We haven’t seen the crown of head wounds he got earlier than this, in Return of Bruce Wayne, but we will. Morrison has already said he feels Superman is a better idea than Jesus and here is yet another Christ moment for Batman, a comparison he’s been making since at least the early 90s.

Pg 22 – Batman is hallucinating and remembering and understanding. In effect, he is having a vision. Batman, especially Morrison’s Batman, has visions. But, going all the way back to that bat that sat on a bust in his father’s study, Bruce Wayne is a superstitious man. And, his heroism springs from his cowardice, from a base-level terror and anxiety. Bruce is a superstitious and cowardly man, and his awesome comes out, in part, from acting against those despite feeling them. The big monster bat skin hung over him as he is staked out overnight is horrifying. It reminds him of terror, monsters, omens, skeletal hands pointing, and masks, and ultimately, himself.

Pg 23 – The kid is back! And he bears a bat-shield.

Batman has inspired a scared orphan to man up, put on a mask, and come save his ass so he can go beat up evil. Batman is forever, but Robins spring eternal. In Robin, Batman sees how he could have helped himself, and Robins see in Batman what all kids see in Batman: a hero they could be if they worked hard enough. As adults, we know, mostly, that it’s silly to believe this. You can’t be Batman. You’d die being Batman and nobody would ever treat you as they treat Batman in a Batman story. But, to kids? As a sell? Batman is the superhero you could be.

Pg 26 – Bruce Wayne is a badass. But, you put point ears and a cape on Bruce and he’s unstoppable.

Vandal calls Bruce a “sorcerer” here, and since Batman is traditionally considered “super rational” or a guy who doesn’t like or believe in magic, that might seem ignorant. But, Grant Morrison understands magick differently, and his Batman – his way of looking at Batman – makes calling him a sorcerer totally sensible. Batman believes in fate and omens and in fighting them or ignoring them if you desire. He believes in directing, in control, in defiance and order and compassion. He’s superstitious. A crusader. A priest. Batman is the weird, emotional, incomprehensible dark man who lives on the outskirts of town in his weird cave full of tools and fetishes, who comes into town and performs awesome feats in his animal mask.

Pg 27 – And Bruce Wayne, by being a dude in an animal mask, inspires others. He inspires what the kid, on this page, calls “Bat People.”

Pg 34 – With Batman gone, we see the fate of Savage, and why Savage is not Batman and Batman not Savage. They’ll both be around in the 21st Century. They’re both strong, fast, incredibly smart, powerful and inspiring men. Vandal Savage wants to be king. He wants to sit in the middle of town, with the best of everything as his right, to be worshipped and admired by demand. Law of Batman #2: Batman is not a conqueror. Batman doesn’t really care if people worship him, or admire him. He wants his dead parents to think well of him, maybe, and he likes his friends, sure, but he’ll burn anyone if it’s the right thing to do, the just thing. Batman doesn’t demand the cops serve him. He’ll work besides the police or government, but if they’re on the other side, they’re on the other side. He’ll fight cops. He’ll scare citizens flying overhead on a batrope, but he won’t attack people and demand allegiance or payment.

Chapter 2: Until the End of Time

Pg 1 – Does Batman create his villains? Encourage them?

Bruce fights a monster here that he brought to this time, this place, but he didn’t know it (and does not understand, in the scene), and he’s not responsible for the decisions the monster makes. You can’t blame Batman for Joker or Riddler or the Cavalier or Professor Pyg. Even if they are inspired by him, or delighted by his attention, these are people making their own criminal decisions. You can’t blame Batman any more than you can blame their victims.

Pg 2 – “Stay with me and I’ll love you,” Annie says to Bruce, “Until the end of time.” This witchy, dark-eyed woman who he saves from a monster, who patches him up and puts him to bed and says sweet, mysterious things to him.

Pg 8 – A bat, nailed dead to a church door. Stabbed in the heart and hung up as a scapegoat, another scarecrow bat monster, another impaled bat.

And, what does Bruce call it, straightaway? He says it “seems a sinister omen.” It’s a bat-signal, it’s an omen, but it’s a manmade omen, and Bruce knows it. He’s already taken a fake name, here, and put on a costume (with a belt full of pouches), to be the policeman Mordecai, with his chief suspect announcing, in front of him, “The devil walks among us!” as he approaches.

Pg 9-10 – Bruce dispels the idea the Devil is at work here, by using both detective work and intuition to suggest the crime was committed by mortal and immediate hands, specifically those of the decedent’s wife. He’s partially wrong, but he doesn’t know he’s wrong and it’s a good, simple, sensible deduction. His only flaw is not going far enough in his investigation.

Pg 11 – Even though he believes she committed murder, Bruce still shows great compassion, though. He doesn’t want her on trial for things she didn’t do, he does not desire her to be tortured. Batman understands mistakes, missteps, violent emotions. Batman must be compassionate. He must believe in justice, in helping people, but he can’t be about vengeance or cruelty and last.

Pg 12-13 – And, here, with Annie, Bruce continues to show both his compassion and his inability to correctly judge people. He’s emotional. He has an incredible soft spot for women in trouble and for those he feels are shunned or persecuted. Annie is being incredibly suspicious here, her words and actions tinged with cruelty, and yet he ignores that and focuses on her suffering and sadness. He says of her and himself, “We both lost our way.”

Pg 14 – Bruce’s description of what he assumed happened to him, as he is still mostly amnesiac, makes it sound as if he was mugged after coming into Gotham, just as his parents were, the night they were murdered before him.

Pg 15 – “I don’t believe there are witches here,” says Bruce, but we know there are. Bruce has a tendency to deny magick, witches and demons, even if they are right before him. He doesn’t want to see Annie as a witch, or a threat, despite the fact she talks of magick, dark gods, and punishments. He wants to see in her only someone to rescue and someone acting criminally or viciously only out of innocence, the same way he sometimes treats Catwoman or Talia as naïve or animally innocent, instead of as adult women who’ve chosen their lives.

Pg 16 – The dragon, the devil hurting innocents, flees when the bats come out.

Pg 17 – Bruce’s idiot ancestor, the primary antagonist of the issue, refuses to acknowledge that a mortal woman could be the murderer. A guy who wants to torture and kill women for being witches, but the idea that a housewife could be a murderer and not a giant supernatural monster dragondevilthing? Batman may tend to infantilize women, but he’s not a raving misogynist with drool on his chin at the thought of brutalizing young ladies for being immoral.

Pg 18 – Annie’s not quite Snow White, but Bruce is the Huntsman in that story to her fairytale princess exiled to the woods. The Huntsman’s role is to defy queen and society to save a girl who has a very vicious sense of justice, and Bruce, in this chapter, is performing just such a role.

Pg 19-21 – Bruce calls the monster he accidentally brought with him, his “responsibility.” He knows Annie called him by magic for an “avenging angel.” He doesn’t try to punish her, even knowing she’s responsible for murders and been manipulating him. He tries to help. He tries to protect, no matter what.

And, Annie, at the same time, demonstrates the self-justifications of so many of Bruce’s eco-villains. She cares about animals, she values the plants and nature, while society is destroying them, so it must be okeh that she’s killing and hurting people. It doesn’t ring any less selfish here, than when Poison Ivy says it, or R’as al Ghul, but Bruce always tries to give it great consideration, because he wants righteousness to mean rightness and good.

Pg 26 – Minutes until the end of time and the universe, Bruce Wayne stands in a dark disguise, in the last house at the edge of forever, and he pauses from world-saving and world-ending business to memorialize Annie’s death billions of years earlier. He calls her passing, “a tiny spark unnoticed in all the cosmic geometry,” and to some, that might means it’s not significant enough to take time out from what might save existence, but Bruce knows it is. Bruce knows the value of commemorating the dead and caring for the suffering.

Pg 29 – Without Bruce there, Annie dies unjustly by petty officers of a crooked and dogmatic law. Why does a city full of police need a Batman? Because policework is a job. Batman is a thing.

Bruce’s ancestor could never be Batman, and Batman could never be that constable. He’s petty, angry, sadistic, and incapable of looking at people as individuals or acknowledging they have lives, that extenuating circumstances and moments of passion exist. He has a false name, he has a sense of justice, but no compassion at all.

Chapter 3: The Bones of Bristol Bay

Pg 1 – Batman, seen finally in full costume (in flashback), with his head wounds and just now being shot in the skull by a dark god or true devil.

Pg 2 – Is this Vandal Savage again, in a costume, calling himself Black Beard? It is easy to say, “How can they not tell it’s ____ in a costume?” if you have no reason to suspect it is, it will be difficult. It’s easier for us, outside the story, because the story makes the connection for us, but remember, in the very first Batman story ever, we spend the whole story with Bruce and Commissioner Gordon talking, Batman fighting crime, but it’s only revealed in the last panels that Bruce is Batman and prior to that, you can’t tell.

Pg 4 – Black Beard is mistaken about Bruce’s identity, too. He sees he’s strong, he sees that he’s intense, and he wants him to be something he understands, so he assumes he’s the Black Pirate, Captain of the Black Rose.

Bruce does not hesitate on this page to headbutt evil right in the nose, because Batman can’t hesitate. Batman cannot be intimidated. Or, at least, intimidation should not slow him up. Action! Justice! Broken noses!

Pg 5 – Vandal Savage or not, Black Beard is captaining a ship called Revenge and set up as a small king, once again, a swaggering bully with royal pretensions, ruling by fear and cruelty. Batman, to keep being Batman, cannot be sailing the good ship Revenge or making a bully or a king of himself.

Pg 8 – More dead bats tethered to posts and some impaled skulls. Batman, for all the fun and flash of him, is a terrible mythic thing that, when crucified, is shown to also be small, mortal, funny-looking. And, there’s always a terrible hole in him, something broken, even in the lightest of takes, something is driving this guy, there is something more solid, more whole, or holy, that he is seeking.

Pg 9-13 – While Black Beard makes leaps of faith, such as his “if this story about the Black Pirate is true, then this and this story must also be true,” Bruce Wayne follows paths of analysis. He tries not to make assumptions, but deductions based on evidence.

Pg 14-15 – Finally, a scene in the present day. A different Batman and his Robin, in radiation suits, in a destroyed city, looking very post-apocalyptic, continuing to fight crime and solve mysteries even with Bruce Wayne missing. Bat-people needed Bruce to start it all, but once begun, there will always be a Batman. As a former Robin says, the bat symbol was found throughout thousands of years, “carried across the Siberian land bridge into Europe by North American cavemen and built into 19th Century gardens.”

Pg 18 – A bridge of bones, and a pack or brave pirates who’re going to “show death who’s master” begin to die one by one, by a visitation of bats, bat-people, bat-fletched arrows and shuriken.

Pg 19-20 – And, standing on the bridge of skulls and femurs in the dark, surrounded by bats? A masked Bruce Wayne who will teach the surviving criminals fear.

Pg 21 – “I never met a ghost I couldn’t kill,” says Black Beard, but Batman is friends with death, Bruce Wayne is there in the dark, in a place of death, and it’s his home. For Bruce, death is a beginning, it is an always. You fight on regardless, and do right.

Pg 27 – Jack Valor, the guy whom Bruce borrowed his mask from this issue, wants to retire from masked dogooding, but Bruce tells him clearly, “Whatever happens… never give up the fight.”

Pg 28 – Black Beard, on the other hand, says he had planned on getting the treasure and retiring to a little island, have a family, be super-rich, but since he hasn’t got the gold and silver, they might as well go back to plundering. “Bring on tomorrow, we’ll seize it by the throat!”

Pg 29 – And, after many years of masked crimefighting, Jack did retire, marry, have kids, and chill out. But, even as an old man, unmasked, not using his fists or a sword, he still fought the good fight his entire life. He still consorted with bat-people and their plans for justice, their fight against the devil and crime. He did good.

While Black Beard/Savage is the antagonist here, Jack Valor is the strongest foil in The Bones of Bristol Bay for Bruce Wayne. He, too, wears a costume inspired by one his father wore, fights against crime and cruelty, comes from a wealthy family, has great physical prowess, all that good stuff. But Jack doesn’t even seem to know why he does it, except he inherited it and bad people annoy him. He lacks Bruce’s drive for more than adventure or distraction.

Law of Batman #3: Batman does not stop.

Pg 30-31 – Wayne Manor, that abandoned, big, haunted house just outside the city, with its caves and its shadows! And, in Wayne Manor, a man of justice, a man with superhuman reflexes and true grit. A man who lost his family, lost his way, but fights on! Jonah Hex!

Jonah is a hired gun, the best hired gun in the Old West, and he and Batman do share a lot in common, but Jonah, like Jack, is no Bruce Wayne. Batman is not for hire. He doesn’t owe allegiance. Batman is about an ethos, a directive, not law or contract. Jonah isn’t all about the money, he’s not a greedy or vain man, in that way, but he upholds his image above all else, and he is often incapable of changing his mind, while Bruce Wayne can change tactics, he can forgive enemies and he can cast judgment on friends. Bruce Wayne can call people out, or he can look the other way, as individual situations mitigate or instigate.

Chapter 4: Dark Night, Dark Rider

Pg 1-3 – Yet another family brought low by thieves with guns.

Pg 4 – And, this time, a mother kneeling in the rain, the blood of her family pooling around her, as she plans vengeance and envisions the “darkest, truest angel.” And, in answer to her desperation, the avenging shadow that falls on her belongs to…

Pg 5 – Bruce Wayne, complete with a dead father hanging over his shoulder, a mask on his face, and some Dark Knight Returns-evoking lightning flaring in the background.

Pg 6-7 – Again, with a bridge that can deliver death. And, again with Bruce being referred to as a ghost, except they know he can’t be a ghost because he’s using tools.

Pg 8 – And, here is the 19th Century Vandal Savage, here calling himself Sauvage. And, also, looking sadder, lonelier, with a cancer that won’t stop but can never kill him, and being greedy with his booze.

Pg 11-12 – Bruce isn’t killing anyone, but he is disabling everyone’s gun arm as soon as they get in his way. Batman isn’t about killing, he’s about disarming. Dead people, after all, can’t feel guilt and they can’t rehabilitate.

Pg 14 – Like the post-apocalyptic present or the devil-overrun Gotham that Bruce’s ancestor policed, Sauvage/Savage sees this era as “fallen times” filled with “degraded men.” Every era looks dark and crime-ridden, sinful and gone too far, but how many eras actually have been? None, probably, or else we’d never have got out of them and into the future.

Batman doesn’t believe in futility or sin so deep it can’t be absolved or damage that can’t be repaired, worlds or people who can’t be saved.

Pg 15 – Hey, kids! It’s Thomas Wayne! Bruce’s evil, also immortal ancestor, who’s a devil-worshipping paranoid jerk. And, he’s introduced calling a hostage, “slut,” because like his and Bruce’s mutual ancestor, the Hammer of old Gotham, Thomas has issues with women.

More skulls on sticks, too. Gothamites love skulls on sticks.

Pg 16 – The bells will “summon.. from the shadows… one who won’t stop until the wicked are brought to account.

Now, no one in the scene knows what the bells are, or do, outside of prophecy. She thinks they’ll bring the above-quoted figure, and Thomas believes they bring Barbatos, a bat-god, but also, if you’ve read this comic, and others, you know that the bells are a mnemonic to remind Bruce of Alfred, of calling Alfred to come patch him up and save his life, the night he decided concretely to become Batman. So, the above quote applies to Batman, yes, but it also summarizes Alfred quite well. Because while there is a Batman, there is an Alfred.

Pg 23-24 – Three different ancestors of Bruce Wayne’s converge, on an immortal who doesn’t seem to get that he is, one trying to kill himself rather than wander with ennui on his shoulders, and Catherine, brave, fiery, having been kidnapped, tortured, and drugged, still fighting, still protecting secrets, defending family, and hitting Vandal Savage, ever-living conqueror, right in his face.

Pg 25 – Bruce, standing in the rain before a kneeling couple who will one day be his great-great-great grandparents, having saved their lives and now handing them the pearls that one day will belong to his mother, the pearls his mother will die wearing.

“All of the days of the world is one day,” Catherine said her grandfather, Jerome said, “and he must be strong for us all.” This is true of Batman, but it is true for all of us, then, as well. It’s that third Law of Batman, again. Batman does not stop.

Pg 28 – Batman, shot down. If it is true that when Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down, he was killed, it is also true that when his parents were murdered, Bruce became immortal. “And now I must die,” does not follow “I’ve been shot in the breast” for Bruce Wayne, for Batman. But, it’ll hurt.

Pg 30 – Thomas Wayne, immortal, evil, takes his medical equipment and a top hat and sails for Liverpool. Because we just read Batman vs Jack the Ripper and didn’t realize it.

Pg 31– Bleeding out, staggering, Bruce is in the city of his childhood for about four panels before he’s hit by a truck. Welcome to Gotham.

Chapter 5: Masquerade

Pg 2 – It wouldn’t be a Frank Miller riff without heavy shadows, sharp angles, tough talk, an ass-shot dominating the page.

Pg 3-4 – Bruce is going to follow Marsha Lamarr. She’s presenting a crime to him and she’s a woman in apparent need. That’s all Bruce needs to get going. It’s that infantilizing he does plus his drive to see crimes solved.

He does not know the crime is his own mother’s murder, because he hasn’t got his memory all the way back and he has a concussion. Nor, does he understand that the costume this woman presents to him is one his dad wore, one time, to a fancy dress party, a proto-Batman costume.

Pg 11 – Bruce has a “capacity as a detective” because Marsha is disguising him as one. Just as Bruce has a capacity as such as Batman, or a capacity as almost anything by similar means. Dress up and do the job.

Pg 13 – Betsy and Roddy Kane, the parents of Bruce’s mother, are many things he must not ever be. The joke the page about wasps is a joke on how WASPish Betsy comes off, but she’s also callous, classist, judgmental, dismissive of her dead daughter, her son-in-law, her suffering husband right there beside her, only seeming to care about place, money, and vengeance, not people.

Pg 14 – Bat symbols in the dregs in the teacup, in the outline of the awning.

Pg 15 – But, even Roddy and horrible Betsy Kane are suffering. She’s posing as an arch and vicious WASP, but she’s heartbroken and fearful, and like all people, she’s dying.

Pg 17 – The first thing Marsha and Bruce do, hitting Wayne Manor, is to visit the family graveyard. Because Wayne Manor is the family plot, in its way. The crypt Bruce reaches first is Alan and Catherine’s, the couple he had only last issue seen meet for the first time. We are all mortal, whether we like it or not, death is always present.

Pg 18 – Thomas Wayne, with a new face, an awkward haircut, running a military psychiatric hospital and making deals with desperate sinners as he wants to be the devil (and, he is a devil, he’s just too self-doubting to guess it). Here, at Willowood, he is actually the “inmate running the asylum,” as we’d seen just previously, “Bad Tom,” whom Betsy Kane thought was Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne, is actually this much older and considerably more evil Thomas.

Pg 20 – Marsha is telling Bruce she “only wants [him] to play a detective,” that she only wants a patsy, but he can’t see it.

Pg 23 – “Playing a ghost didn’t seem so bad.” At least, Bruce is starting to get into it again.

Pg 24 – And there’s Bruce, in his daddy’s clothes, in the family cemetery, surrounded by darkness and bats and an eclipsed moon.

Pg 26 – “A poisoned kiss.” Several bat-villains have used poison lipstick or poison kisses before, from Poison Ivy and Talia to the Joker, himself, but too, it’s a metaphor of intimacy turning into betrayal, and how attractive some risk, some pain can be. Bruce Wayne always goes along with these sorts of women, doesn’t he? And puts himself besides these kinds of men. Maybe he hopes that sometimes it won’t turn out to be true (and on occasion, he’s been right), but still, it’s the kind of risk that would get you or I killed. We cannot be Batman and make it. At our best, we can be Batman and die.

Pg 27 – Old Thomas Wayne, here wearing his domino mask and his robes and hood looks an awful lot like the New God of Sadism, Desaad. And in the panel at the bottom, as Bruce tells her, “No one lost a soul, but you,” Marsha looks like she’s gone soulless, just not caring at all, cruelly lighting her cigarette…

Pg 28 – That she will use to set Bruce Wayne on fire.

Pg 29 – One of the cabal changes his mind. See? Bruce’s trust isn’t so bad. People can change. People can act better. No one is damned forever. But, though he helps Bruce escape, his own guilt will weigh on him like a jacket lined on the inside with knives, for the rest of his days.

Pg 30 – Bruce’s grandfather dies as Bruce leaves this time.

And, thus ends Bruce trying to play at being a detective. Just wearing a bat-mask and solving mysteries is not enough. Batman cannot be just a detective. He can’t just be a costume. As we see, that only results it being set on fire.

Chapter 6: The All-Over

Pg 1-4 – Bruce Wayne at the end of time, in the last haunted house at the edge of town ever.

The story of Batman is being archived for all time, and these are its defining elements: the pearls, the bell, the gun, and the bullet. Apparently, that’s what you need to build a Batman: pearls, bell, gun, bullet.

The robots here are filling “the hole” in existence with all the information they can, and the story of Batman is the last thing packed in.

Pg 3 – Bruce is dying from being shot, beat up, and set aflame, but Batman can’t die because then there wouldn’t be as many Batman comics coming out, so, the robots resurrect him. And, too, one of them merges with him. Because Batman is about not dying and about making friends, whether Batman himself knows this, or otherwise. It’s about reaching out, about touching people, and keeping them alive.

Pg 4 – The robots also pulled the devil out of Bruce that he’s been carrying with him this whole time.

Pg 5 – Bruce needs a disguise and an ally, so he can fight the bad thing. Always.

In this case, he needs to hide inside one of the robots, his new friend, and find a way to defeat the monster that’s been piggybacking on him this entire comic.

Pg 8 – “If I ring this bell, Alfred will come,” says Bruce back in his past, the night he chooses to become Batman, which he has not done yet. This, of course, is the all-important bell that is a defining part of his story, yet something so often ignored.

Where there is a Batman, there is an Alfred. Where there is a Batman, there are bat-people.

Pg 13 – Skeets is trying to get them to trust Batman, soon Red Robin will be asking Bruce to trust him. Batman’s not about trust, right? Batman is a skeptic, Batman is a cynic? Right?

Batman is a superhero who dresses in a silly costume and tells children that even if their parents die or the world falls apart it’s not the end, and things can and will get better. Batman drives a batmobile with bat-symbols on the hubcaps.

Pg 16 – Using end of the world technology, Batman has two awesome tools in his cache now: 1) he gets to briefly know almost everything and 2) he throws bats at people. Yes, Batman has evolved past batarangs or grappling guns with pictures of bats on them to actually growing bats off his costume to attack on his behalf.

Pg 17 – Red Robin means major superheroes when he says “big guns,” but this is Batman. Batman. Bringing guns in is going to put him down faster?

Pg 18-19 – Red Robin asks Bruce to trust him, tries to remind him of what Batman is and should be. But, he’s also convinced still that there is something wrong with Batman, the same way most of us, when we look at Batman objectively, decide that his approach is “real world” unhealthy. That there’s something wrong with him.

Pg 20 – Bruce tells Wonder Woman to put the lasso on him, use it to force him to tell the truth, because Bruce Wayne likes being honest. If Bruce lies or keeps secrets, they are to protect others, not for him to hide inside.

Pg 21 – And Batman’s crafty. The horrible monster devil bat thing inside him tells him to say “nothing,” so Batman goes “Nothing,” and then continues with what he wants to say.

Batman doesn’t stop.

Pg 22 – Bruce’s biggest enemy is wrapped around him like a skin.

Splayed below in insets, all manner of things to flesh out a Batman: pearls, bullet, gloves, gunshot victim, bat, night, knight, Orion, laughter, constellations, the hanged man, a Robin, Wonder Woman.

Pg 23 – Wonder Woman helps build a better Batman? Yes, she does.

“Batman should be on his own, or he’s less special” makes sense until you really apply it. Batman working alongside Superman and Wonder Woman without having massive powers does make him special. And, like here, when Batman can utilize his superhuman allies to defeat the devil that’s pursued him across all time because the Justice League are really good at punching monsters in the face, that’s beyond special.

Pg 27 – Wonder Woman says “Batman must die!” and he is, already, dying.

But, the thing is, again, we are all, always dying. Some of us are just dying slower than others.

And, Red Robin? Red Robin saying how unfair it is that Batman must face these cosmic and metaphysical assaults, that only gangsters and serial murderers should be thrown at him? He’s thinking small. It’s his friend, his father figure, so we can forgive that, but it’s small. Batman is big. Batman can take it.

Batman can die and it won’t kill him.

Pg 28-29 – In flashback, Bruce is told, “If you flinch, you will not survive.” Luckily, he’s Batman. Batman does not stop. Batman does not flinch. Batman sees pain and hardship and the safety and goodness beyond it and leaps right into the pain and hardship to carry all of us to the other side.

Pg 31 – Wonder Woman and Superman need a way to get Batman back to life, and his Robin has the simplest, most direct method. Show him his cowl and tell him that his city needs him.

Pg 33 – And it works.

Pg 34 – Batman, in the cave, in the dark, with the bats, ready to go save his city, to save all of us and everything, tonight and every night. And, always.