Comic Review – Batman : The Return of Bruce Wayne (Deluxe Edition)

Writer: Grant Morrison ~ Artists: Chris Sprouse, Frazer Irving, Yannette Paquette, Georges Jeanty, Ryan Sook, Lee Garbett ~ Publisher: DC Comics ~ Year: 2011

Return of Bruce Wayne Deluxe - cover[xrr rating=3.5/5]

The Low-Down: The return through time of the original Batman is as mindbending as you’d expect from the pen of controversial comics creator Grant Morrison. A wild, colourful and inventive journey through pulp storytelling, The Return of Bruce Wayne has some serious consistency problems and is in no way a ‘jumping on’ point, but the combination of adventure, mythmaking and experimental storytelling makes for a heady and entertaining brew.

The Backstory: He witnessed his parents’ murder when only eleven years old. Up until recently, multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne secretly used his resources, training and cunning to fight crime on the streets of Gotham under the costumed identity of the Batman – but after an apocalyptic confrontation with the god-like Darkseid, Wayne was apparently killed, and ex-sidekick Dick Grayson took over the mantle of the Caped Crusader.

What’s it About?: Bruce Wayne is far from dead. Displaced in time by the ‘Omega Effect’, he’s now lost in history, his memory in tatters, facing untold dangers in timezone after timezone, fighting to find his way back to the present day. Along the way, he’s also discovering dark secrets of the Wayne family, as well as clues to the identity of Dr. Hurt, the arch-criminal behind the organisation known as the Black Glove. Nothing is going to stop him from reaching his destination – but Darkseid already planned for this, and if Bruce Wayme arrives in the twenty-first century, it could mean destruction for everyone…

Return of Bruce Wayne #1 - Page 30The Story: There are some superhero stories where you can easily leap into the fray… and there are some where it’s a really bad idea. Grant Morrison’s comics have always been demanding and heavily interlinked, but his epic run on Batman has taken things to another level. Since 2006, he’s been telling a sprawling, ambitious novel-like story (which has also stretched into series like Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers of Victory), and just to make matters even more complicated, much of The Return of Bruce Wayne fits closely together with stories in his acclaimed run on Batman and Robin (especially ‘Batman vs Robin’ and ‘Batman and Robin Must Die!’ in volumes 2 and 3). So, if you’re looking for traditional, easily accessible superhero action – move along, there nothing for you here.

That’s not to say that The Return of Bruce Wayne doesn’t have plenty to offer, just that like ‘Batman R.I.P’, this is a smaller portion of a much larger work. Throughout his run on Batman, Morrison has been deliberately embracing the crazier elements of Batman’s lengthy history (most notably, working many of the overly camp 1950s-published sci-fi Batman stories into the fantastically twisted and disturbing ‘Batman R.I.P.’), and The Return of Bruce Wayne is the most extreme he’s gone yet. At first glimpse, there shouldn’t be anything further away from a traditional Batman tale than a crazy time-warp adventure that includes such memorable sights as Caveman Batman, Pilgrim Batman and Pirate Batman (although it has to be said, the story’s brief pirate persona for Bruce Wayne isn’t anywhere near as fun as Andy Kubert’s ludicrously brilliant cover illustration).

Batman Return of Bruce Wayne #3 - thebatrangerAnd yet, what Morrison has done is strip Batman down to barest essentials and rebuild him, while also putting Bruce Wayne in his proper context as a pulp hero. Each chapter of the story gives a new twist, exploring a different aspect of the character, pitching him against the ultimate enemy – History itself – and the end result is a deliriously barmy adventure that stretches a mystery across time, and raises the Batman to a truly mythic level.It also links back in surprising ways with ‘Batman: R.I.P’ and ‘Final Crisis’, layering in a massive amount of detail and pulling off some truly mind-expanding moments, especially in the Jack Kirby-esque science fictional final chapter.

It’s also true, though, that Morrison does throw a few too many ideas into the mix at times, and the book overall doesn’t always hit the fantastic highs of the brilliant Stone-Age-set opening chapter. There’s also the fact that we don’t really get the complete finale of Wayne’s time-travel adventures and Morrison’s uber-storyline here – the rest appears in the stories to be published in the upcoming Batman and Robin volume 3 – while DC’s decision not to reprint the key Batman issues 701 and 702 here (the atmospheric story ‘R.I.P.- The Missing Chapter’, which perfectly bridges the gap between ‘R.I.P’ and ‘Final Crisis’) means that it’s even harder to play catch-up than before. However, for those willing to try and keep up, what this collection lacks in consistency, it makes up for in adventurousness, creativity and sheer pulp pleasure.

Batman Return of Bruce Wayne Frazer IrvingThe Art: The plan was for each issue of this six-issue miniseries to be handled by a single artist, most of whom had worked with Morrison before (except for Chris Sprouse) – unfortunately, delays and production problems threw a spanner in the works, which means that the first half of The Return of Bruce Wayne is a very different visual proposition from the second. In the first three issues, we have Chris Sprouse’s clean and classical pulp stylings in the Caveman issue, the moody and lush digitally painted work of Frazer Irving on the Pilgrim issue, and the atmospheric pencils of Yannick Paquette on the Pirate story.

Sadly, Cameron Stewart dropped out of doing issue 4, the Western chapter, and while Georges Jeanty (best known for his work on the comic book ‘Season 8’ of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) pulls off some strong moments, his storytelling gets murky at times. The remaining two issues also see a major amount of work from fill-in artists, which is especially frustrating in the massively ambitious chapter 6. It often feels like Morrison is cursed to always see his most adventurous scripts plagued with production issues (similar problems affected the final volume of his Vertigo series The Invisibles), and The Return of Bruce Wayne is left halfway between being a major artistic showcase and a slightly rushed patch-up job. This Deluxe Format edition means the art looks as good as possible on over-size pages, and at its best, its an artistic jam to match the eclectic styles on show in Seven Soldiers of Victory – but there’s still a slight sense that not all the issues got the consistently great art that they deserved.

The Verdict: It’s not quite the rousing success it should have been – but even Morrison’s near-misses are fascinating, adventurous stuff, and The Return of Bruce Wayne is best read as simply one chapter of Morrison’s sweeping, genre-defying, experimental Bat-epic.

[amtap book:isbn=0857682148]

Movie News: Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? No… it’s that bloke from ‘The Tudors’ (A Superman Casting Update)

Superman Logo Alex Ross

Zack Snyder’s new cinematic reboot of the Man of Steel just took a big step closer to actually happening, as he’s cast the title role. And who’s the actor stepping into the legendary blue-and-red spandex?

Henry Cavill portrait Superman News

It’s Henry Cavill. And if your first thought is “Who’s that?” then you’re not exactly alone. Yet again, and fairly sensibly, they’ve gone for another fairly unknown actor (although nowhere near as unknown as Brandon Routh was when he was cast in Superman Returns) – British actor Cavill certainly can’t be described as a star, although he’s actually worked pretty consistently for the past ten years, and is currently best known for regularly getting his kit off in the luridly OTT historical drama The Tudors as nobleman Charles Brandon.

And my first thoughts? Well, only having seen one episode of The Tudors (I have what could be described as a ‘problem’ with anything that involves giving Jonathan Rhys Meyers the chance to either yell or pout), I can’t say that Cavill made a massive impression, and certainly isn’t as interesting as casting Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man. From the photos, Cavill’s certainly got the chin for the role, and he’s got that handsome if slightly anonymous thing down pat. Despite my dislike of Superman Returns, I thought Brandon Routh was the best thing in it and it’s a shame he’ll never get the chance to play the part again, but it does rather feel as if they’ve gone here for a safe relative unknown, rather than a risky out-of-nowhere blind-sider, which isn’t that surprising as Warner Bros really, really, really need this to work. There’s always the chance that Cavill may turn out to be really good , but to be honest, getting excited about this casting would involve getting excited about this movie in general, and I’m finding it rather difficult. The moment Snyder was signed, my interest in a new Superman film (even one being ‘shepherded’ by Christopher Nolan) plummeted – he’s a director who’ll certainly make something flashy and eye-catching, and I’m sure that his Superman film will, whatever the flaws, be better than the deeply misconceived Superman Returns (I admire Bryan Singer for attempting it, but good golly, that film didn’t work in a whole variety of ways), but ever since 300, he’s shown no sign of doing anything other than eye candy and visual bluster (even in Watchmen, which managed some good sequences, but fell flat as a piece of cinema). The new Superman will be slick and good-looking, but if it manages to capture a tenth of the spirit that the original two Richard Donner (and part-Richard Lester) films managed, I will be seriously surprised…

(Of course, it doesn’t help that one of the main reasons Snyder got Superman in the first place is that he’s good at doing projects quickly – Warner Bros not only need this film to be succesful, they need it to go into production pretty damn soon, otherwise their legal battle with the family of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gets even more complicated than before, and they risk losing the rights to one of the best-known superheroes in the world. It’d be nice to be optimistic, but I can think of very few examples of films pushed into production to meet a precise release date that have actually turned out well. But – I guess we’ll have to wait and see…)

UPDATE: It’s just been pointed out (by someone else) on Twitter that we now have a situation where three of the biggest superheroes are all played by British actors (the others being Andrew Garfield in Spider-Man, and Christian Bale in Batman). Not sure exactly what that signifies, but felt it was worth sharing…

UPDATE: Via, it’s been revealed that the other contenders on the shortlist were Matthew Goode (best known as Ozymandias in Watchmen), Matthew Bomer (from TV shows Chuck and Tru Calling), Arnie Hammer (who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), Joe Manganiello (Alcide in S3 of True Blood) and Colin O’Donaghue (now in daft-looking religious horror The Rite). While Arnie Hammer might have been interesting after his work in The Social Network, I think Cavill is actually the most potentially interesting of the bunch, and it certainly says what they were looking for – a late twentysomething absurdly handsome actor with the right kind of chin. And while Matthew Goode can be a good actor, after his oddball turn as Ozymandias in Watchmen, I’d rather not see him near any superhero characters for a while…

TV Review – Misfits: Season 2

CAST: Robert Sheehan, Iwan Rheon, Lauren Socha, Anotonia Thomas, Nathan Stewart-Jarret ~ WRITER: Howard Overman ~ DIRECTOR: Tom Green ~ YEAR: 2010

The Backstory: Five young offenders, brought together thanks to their enforced Community Service, are caught in a bizarre electrical storm and end up with superpowers – but the last thing they’re likely to do is use them responsibly…

What’s it about?: Their community ser2vice is approaching its end, and Nathan has just risen from the dead thanks to the discovery he’s immortal. However, there are even more powers-enhanced people affected by the storm – many of them dangerous – and there’s also the mysterious hooded figure who’s watching their every move…

The Show: Season 2 of this ‘superheroes with ASBOs’ comedy drama doesn’t mess around – it knows what everybody liked last time, and delivers plenty more of the gory, sweary and sex-heavy formula laid down in Season 1. Low-budget but surprisingly stylish, Misfits knows what its audience wants and isn’t afraid to go in some ludicrously over-the-top directions in order to deliver it. It’s an energetic and fun show that works well as a purely enjoyable (and occasionally nasty) fantasy comedy/drama, but is also capable of being a hell of a lot more than the sweary teen drama it advertises itself as, frequently tackling ffective drama and strong character twists. In fact, Misfits’ biggest strength is the way it uses the normally black-and-white morality of superhero stories to explore some very grey areas, combined with the way it lets its characters behave in unsympathetic ways and go in directions that aren’t simple good vs evil (although they’ve finally found the right balance with Nathan (Robert Sheehan), who spent most of S1 being a little too annoying).

As a result, there’s also no shortage of conflict and weirdness (especially in the excellent shape-shifter episode that opens the season), and while the series cranks up the bodycount in these episodes (making the main location probably the most lethal Community Centre in Britain), it mostly keeps a good balance between outrageous fantasy and gritty reality, and does it a hell of a lot more effectively than overblown BBC emo-fest Being Human (a show that has, on occasion, managed to out-emo some Anime shows, which takes some doing…). In fact, despite the ‘superhero comedy drama’ tag, Misfits is often most effective when it’s pastiching horror, frequently coming over as a super-profane and gory remix of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes – and like Buffy, it understands the importance of superpower as metaphor.

Misfits TV - publicity photoFor the most part, Season 2 is a much stronger and more focussed setup, giving us some very effectively played character drama (especially in the evolution of Simon (Iwon Rheon) and Alisha (Antonia Thomas)), and it’s largely a rollicking, entertaining and gripping ride – but there are still problems, and the quality of the storytelling remains rather variable. The main arc of the season – the identity of the mysterious ‘Super Hoodie’ who seems to know everything about the main characters – starts off massively intriguing and does pay off in a very surprising way, but feels oddly truncated and doesn’t impact on the series anywhere near as much as it should. Certain plot-twists and episodes veer towards the predictable, and the overall structure of the series is a bit murky, as it once again abruptly reboots towards the end of the season (particularly the Christmas Special, which feels more like a repurposed first episode to season 3), while you can also see scriptwriter Howard Overman starting to struggle with maintaining the ’emotional metaphor’ side of the superpowers. This happens a lot with the now-frequently-appearing villains, many of whom don’t quite have the emotional focus that the ‘powers of the week’ had in Season 1 (for example, the man who has a Grand Theft Auto-style game playing in his head – what exactly is his power supposed to be?). It’s also the case that, as with Heroes, Misfits is the kind of show that should steer clear of full-on action that it doesn’t have the budget for – the only two examples sadly come across as a little embarrassing, trying to spoof superhero conventions (especially the fight with the Tatoo artist) but instead playing as weak and badly conceived.

Of course, these scenes only stand out because so much of the surrounding series is extremely good. In fact, about 70% of Misfits S2 is genuinely brilliant and entertaining stuff, but it’s let down by the other 30%, and not helped by the storytelling this year being rather skewed in favour of Nathan, Simon and Alisha. Both Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarret) and Kelly (Lauren Socha) get distinctly short-changed in terms of storylines, with Kelly’s one character-centric subplot leading to possibly the worst and most clumsily executed moment in the whole show (The lesson? Don’t attempt to make a tear-jerking scene out of the revelation that a character has – for slightly confusing reasons – turned into a gorilla (and especially don’t try to score it with Samuel Barber’s classical piece ‘Adagio for Strings – the results will be BAD)) while Curtis’s emotional time-rewind power essentially leaves him stuck as an emergency ‘Reboot Plot’ button or shouting “My power doesn’t work like that!” for most of the season.

The show’s being enthusiastically embraced by its fans partly because it’s a superhero tale that breaks taboos with such enthusiastic glee – a glee that occasionally gets a bit self-congratulatory (especially when they dress the characters up as superheroes in episode 4 for no other reason than ‘It’ll look great in the final shot!”) –  but while it’s still tetering on the edge of being brilliant and can be inconsistent, Season 2 does tip the balance further in a positive direction. The kind of crude, lewd show that’s oddly charming despite frequently trying way too hard to shock or repulse (most notably in the overplayed birth sequence in the Christmas Special), Misfits is nevertheless building in strength and quality – and it’ll be interesting to see whether the drastic format changes coming up in Season 3 will revitalise the series further, or send it into a Heroes-style downturn…

Verdict: An entertainingly filthy take on the world of the superhero, this isn’t quite the classic that much of the geek press is proclaiming it to be, but Misfits is definitely improving, and is one of the most enjoyable adult-skewed UK genre shows we’ve seen in a long time.

[xrr rating=4/5]

[amtap amazon:asin=B003HC8BZ4]

Comics Review – Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus (Volume 1)

WRITER/ARTIST: Jack Kirby ~ PUBLISHER: DC Comics ~ YEAR: 1970-71

Jack Kirby's fourth worldWhat’s it about?: Once, the Old Gods ruled supreme. Now, after they fell, out in the depths of space dwell the New Gods, inhabitants of the warring planets of New Genesis and Apokolips. But the hand of the tyrannical Darkseid is reaching out to Earth, searching for the elusive answer to the Anti-Life Equation, and soon all of humanity is in deadly jeopardy…

The Story: As ahead-of-their-time concepts go, the Fourth World saga was up there with the best of them. Having jumped ship from Marvel and signed with DC in the early 1970s, Jack Kirby basically had carte blanche to do what he wanted. He’d already been drawing comics for decades, doing everything from crime to romance, while completely remixing the idea of what superhero comic art could be with his classic run on The Fantastic Four. And naturally, he wasn’t about to do anything small. What he came up was a sequence of stories that ran through four seperate titles, all of which linked up to tell a bizarre, mythic story of interplanetary gods fighting an epic war that (naturally) spreads onto Earth, where mankind is soon in danger of being caught in the crossfire.

Jack Kirby New GodsThe thing with the Fourth World is that it’s the comics equivalent of The Velvet Underground – it wasn’t really that succesful, with sales peaking early and then trailing off, and was generally regarded as something of a flop at the time, petering out and being cancelled long before Kirby got to build up to the epic finale he had in mind. But then, something odd happened, and it ended up having such a gigantic influence that this ‘flop’ series ended up as an integral part of the overall architecture of the DC universe, with its set of characters (including Orion, Mr Miracle and Darkseid) turning up in all manner of places. It’s got to the point where DC’s 2008 ‘event series’, the fantastically insane Final Crisis, was actually a gigantic homage to the Fourth World – not copying it, but almost attempting to do the kind of insane, boundary-stretching storytelling that Jack Kirby would be doing now if he was still around.

So, the Fourth World saga is kind of a Ground Zero for many of the modern-day DC superhero comics, and a redefining moment for the more mythic branch of superheroes. Not to say that the gritty, empathetic world of Marvel didn’t have its strengths, but superhero adventures could also be genuinely epic, telling tales like nothing ever seen before. Jack Kirby certainly believed they could, and the Fourth World was soon speeding off the map into its own particularly barmy unexplored territory.

In Volume One of this Omnibus series, we’ve basically got the set-up – it’s a 380 page hardback graphic novel that contains the first 16 issues of the saga in chronological order, and which leaps in sequence between four different titles. It all starts off in the seemingly inauspicious pages of Jimmy Olsen’s Pal Superman – a vehicle for Clark Kent’s bow-tie wearing, gosh-wow junior reporter sidekick which had certainly never been especially interesting or experimental before, but in Kirby’s hands was soon turning into a hallucinatory tale of dropout societies, motorbike gangs, secret scientific projects, genetic engineering and alien invasion. Then, there’s The Forever People, a gang of teenage bike-riding heroes from a place only known as ‘Supertown’ who are soon tackling the forces of evil and the sinister Anti-Life equation, while in ‘Orion of the New Gods’, we finally find out that this is all revolving around the war between peace-loving alien world New Genesis and hellish fire-planet Apokolips, a war that’s soon spreading to Earth. And finally, in ‘Mister Miracle’, we start off with what seems to be the story of a super-powered escape artist, but are soon finding that it all connects up with the other stories in a variety of unpredictable ways.

Jack Kirby Jimmy Olsen panelThe main thing to remember when reading the Fourth World is that these are comics from the 1970s – while there’s plenty about Kirby’s world that’s forward looking, there is also plenty that has a goofiness and a B-movie charm that can make it feel like you’re reading some bizarre cross between Barbarella and Easy Rider- Kirby’s characters are bigger than life, archetypal gods fighting it out on a human scale, and the dialogue can often come across like the crazed outpourings of a nutty beatnik mastermind. And yet, while there’s plenty of goofiness here, there’s also an awesome amount of invention and energy, with almost every page crackling with life. It’s worth remembering that not only was Kirby writing, editing and doing the pencil art on every issue, but he was also in his Fifties at the time, and the Fourth World has the kind of manic momentum and spitballing energy that you’d usually only find in a twentysomething artist eager to prove themselves. There’s also a warmth and a generosity of spirit, and a belief in the younger generation that’d it’d be very easy for the Fiftysomething Kirby not to have – this was a period when it was very easy to still regard the younger generation as a rebellious enemy, and yet the Fourth World is forward-looking and consciousness expanding – it’s ‘far out’ in a way that’s unintentionally funny at times, and yet the energy and the heart of the story shines through.It’s nutty and surreal, with god-like characters fighting it out against four-armed monstrosities while intoning what Grant Morrison describes in his introduction as ‘Shakespearean Jive’, and while it’s an admittedly crazed ride, but it’s also one that’s well worth taking.

These collected editions are gorgeous, but they ain’t cheap (coming in at about £33 pounds each), and while there’s been criticism of the decision to use a more traditional comic-style paper stock rather than going for glossy high-grade paper, it actually works perfectly. Kirby’s comics were designed to work on this kind of paper- his work can look garish if presented in the wrong way, but with these Omnibus editions you’re essentially getting a remastered version of the original comics experience, with enhanced colour, a great introduction from Grant Morrison, and a backup essay from Kirby disciple Mark Evanier.

The Art: Big, energetic and crammed full of boggling invention, the Fourth World is also an artistic goldmine, with almost every frame being a masterclass in form and style, with Kirby coming up with evermore lurid and weird double-page spreads and bizarre costume ideas. From angular designs that verge on the abstract to surreal photographic montages depicting psychedelic landscapes, it’s a wild and eye-catching ride. Most of all, there’s the sheer level of energy that’s packed into every single panel – Kirby transformed the concept of how to present action in comics, and in the Fourth World he pushes it to a completely different level. It’s the chance to see a legendary artist at the top of his game, pushing comics in some truly weird and wonderful directions. It’s not the kind of style that’s going to appeal to everyone (especially since modern comic art styles have evolved in an extremely different direction), but if you love Kirby’s work, you simply can’t afford to be without this.

The Verdict: As collected editions go, it’s pretty damn good, and as superhero comics go, this is close to essential – a firecracker of work from an artist firing on all cylinders that’s gloriously insane, and genuinely inspirational in a completely loopy, free-form way.

[xrr rating=5/5]

[amtap book:isbn=1401213448]