Doctor Who reviews: The Time of the Doctor

Matt Smith’s four year tenure as the Eleventh Doctor has come to an end with “The Time of the Doctor.”  Not only that, but Steven Moffat has pretty satisfactorily wrapped up the plotlines and answered the major questions set out during that period.  I think this year’s Christmas Special was, all in all, quite good.  Not nearly as impressive as the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special last month, but that was a hell of an act to follow up.

The Doctor, accompanied by Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrives on the spaceship headquarters of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, one of innumerable craft now orbiting a planet from which a mysterious signal is transmitting.  The Doctor and Clara travel down to the planet to investigate it on behalf of the Church.  It is a world of almost eternal night with just one small human settlement, a village named Christmas.  The Doctor discovers the source of the signal in the basement of a house: a mysterious crack in reality, exactly like the ones that he encountered many years before.  Using a scavenged Cyberman head he’s nicknamed “Handles,” the Doctor translates the message: “Doctor Who?”  Suddenly the Doctor realizes exactly where he is.  The planet is Trenzalore, where he is fated to die.

Time of the Doctor

And here all the answers come out.  It transpires that the source of the cracks in time is the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey, which as we saw in “The Day of the Doctor” was saved at the end of the Time War, frozen in a single moment of time and sent off to another reality.  The reason why the question is being broadcast is because if the Doctor answers, the Time Lords will know that they have once again located their home dimension and return.  The Church of the Papal Mainframe and the various other alien races assembled over Trenzalore desperately want to prevent that.  No doubt this is due to the fact that, as seen in “The End of Time,” at the conclusion of the war, faced with defeat at the hands of the Daleks, Rassilon and the High Council of the Time Lords were planning to enact the Final Sanction, wiping out all reality and ascending to a higher plane of existence.

In earlier stories, I’d been really confused about the fact that the religious order known as the Silence had created River Song in order to assassinate the Doctor, but later on she was imprisoned by the Church for apparently succeeding in that task (as we saw in “The Wedding of River Song,” the Doctor faked his death).  In “The Time of the Doctor,” it’s revealed that the Silence were a breakaway faction of the Church of the Papal Mainframe.  The Silence was so fearful of the Doctor ever going to Trenzalore that they were the ones who blew up his TARDIS in “The Big Bang” in an attempt to kill him.  However, not only did that temporarily cause reality to be destroyed, but it also retroactively created the cracks in time in the first place.  And by creating River Song, the Silence inadvertently gave him a friend & ally who helped him stay alive through numerous crises.  As the Doctor explains, the Silence was caught up in a whopping big predestination paradox, causing the very problems they were attempting to prevent.  Yowsa, what a bunch of bunglers!

So now that the Doctor has arrived at Trenzalore, the main chapter of the Church decides that the only way to fix the mess their rogue members created and prevent the Time Lords’ return is to destroy the Christmas settlement and the crack in reality.  Allied with the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and numerous other alien powers, the Church launches an all-out offensive.  The Doctor decides that it is his responsibility to protect the people of Christmas, and so spends the next several centuries repelling the invading forces.  In the process, after all his long wanderings through time & space, the Doctor finally settles down and adopts a new home. We see him growing older and older, eventually becoming an elderly figure.

The Daleks, not unexpectedly, eventually turn on the Church, transforming nearly all the members aboard their ship into brainwashed Dalek / human hybrids like those seen in “Asylum of the Daleks” (as the First Doctor keenly observed in the novelization of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” written by John Peel, “The Daleks don’t take allies – only victims”).  The Doctor manages to get through to Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), the Mother Superious of the Church, and she is able to overcome her Dalek conditioning.  (Tasha is an interesting, enigmatic character, well played by Bradley, and I would certainly enjoy seeing her return in the future.)  This leads to the Doctor fighting side-by-side with the Church and the Silence against the Dalek onslaught.

Time of the Doctor Tasha Lem

We also find out that the Doctor really has reached the end of his life; he has used up his allotted twelve regenerations.  He may call himself the Eleventh Doctor, but between the existence of the War Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor’s non-regeneration at the beginning of “Journey’s End,” he is actually in his thirteenth and final incarnation.  He fully expects to die on Trenzalore, that the planet will be his final resting place, as seen in the future in “The Name of the Doctor.”  He is only trying to stay alive to keep the town of Christmas safe for as long as he possibly can, before what he believes to be the inevitable happens.  He tells Clara, “Every life that I save is a victory.”

If there is one obvious weakness to “The Time of the Doctor,” it is that the Doctor’s centuries-long stay on Trenzalore requires Clara to bounce back and forth between there and Earth.  Otherwise she would have grown old & died long before the end of the episode.  So first the Doctor tricks her into going back to Earth, but by leaping onto the vanishing TARDIS she is returned to Trenzalore three hundred years later.  Then the Doctor pulls the same trick a second time, but on this occasion she is brought back a few centuries later by Tasha, who does not want the Doctor to die alone.  Clara, with all this coming and going (to quote a line from “The Claws of Axos”) comes across like “a galactic yo-yo.”

Nevertheless, Clara is vital to the final outcome.  Just as she was the one who encouraged the Doctor to find a non-destructive resolution to the Time War, so too does she appeal to the Time Lords’ better nature here, speaking to them through the crack in time, asking them to help him because of all the good he has done.  In response, the crack vanishes from the house and reappears in the sky just long enough to send out the energy needed to grant the Doctor a brand new cycle of regenerations.  The Doctor focuses this energy and uses it to obliterate the Daleks, and then returns to the TARDIS, waiting for the change to complete.

Yeah, perhaps it is a bit sappy, Clara’s appeal for the Time Lords’ sympathy.  But is has been shown over and over that one of the things that makes the Doctor a better person, that helps to prevent him from becoming some kind of lonely, angry god, is humanity.  So it makes sense that where the Doctor failed in his efforts to convince his own people to be a better species, it is a decent, kind human such as Clara who succeeds in guiding them towards the correct decision.

Clara is, I think, one of those characters who, if not played by the right actress, might come across as unbearably witty and sweet and clever.  Indeed, that was my first impression of her a year ago.  Fortunately Coleman quickly slipped into the role, making her an appealing, likable, fun character.  She certainly does good work in this episode.

I really appreciated that the Eleventh Doctor accepted his impending regeneration much better than his previous incarnation.  The Tenth Doctor’s final words were “I don’t want to go,” which I never liked.  In contrast, we have a lovely final scene for the Eleventh Doctor written by Moffat that Smith plays extremely well.  The Eleventh Doctor, while he is sad that he will soon be a very different person, acknowledges:

“We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving. So long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

And then… exit Matt Smith, enter Peter Capaldi!  The Twelfth Doctor is, of course, quite confused and, after complaining that he doesn’t like the color of his new kidneys, looks at Clara and asks “One question: do you happen to know how to fly this thing?”  My girlfriend laughed, declaring that was a very Doctor-ish question.

Time of the Doctor Twelfth Doctor

So, yes, the pacing of “The Time of the Doctor” was rather uneven, what with the episode taking place over a period of several hundred years.  In spots it did feel drawn out.  And, as I said, the whole back and forth between Earth and Trenzalore with Clara might have been handled in a somewhat smoother manner.

Also, the ending was perhaps something of a deus ex machina, with the Doctor receiving twelve new regenerations and conveniently using the energy from the process to wipe out the Daleks.  However, it has been stated more than once in the past that the Time Lords have the ability to artificially create a new regeneration cycle.  They dangled that promise in front of the Master in “The Five Doctors,” and subsequently did exactly that when they resurrected him to fight in the Time War.  And the victory over the Daleks seen here did seem more believable & natural than the one back in “The Parting of Ways,” with Rose using the heart of the TARDIS to destroy them.

(Truthfully, though, if you look at the history of Doctor Who, going all the way back to the 1960s, in many of their appearances the Daleks have been written as invincible enemies right up until the final episode of each story, at which point some convenient plot device is used to defeat them.)

Anyway, while not a perfect episode, “The Time of the Doctor” was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable farewell for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.  And it left me anticipating Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he plays the role, and how the Doctor’s relationship with Clara will evolve.

Christmas with the Devil

Christmas is not exactly my favorite time of year.  First of all, like Ben Grimm and Kitty Pryde, I happen to be Jewish.  Second, I look at how ridiculously commercialized the holiday has become, and I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would think in regards to the conspicuous consumerism being conducted in his name.  Third, it is one of those times of year when people feel obligated to be happy & joyous, because that is the image popular culture projects, and so they believe that there is something lacking in or wrong with their lives because they are plagued by myriad problems.

And then I was reminded of Daredevil #266, published by Marvel Comics back in 1989.  It’s definitely one of my all time favorite issues of that series.  Yesterday Ann Nocenti had posted about it on her Facebook page, revealing of this story:

“Reality was the inspiration.  I’d screwed up my life so bad I had nowhere to go on X-Mas, so stopped in a pub and had a memorable day with strangers.”

Daredevil 266 cover signed

“A Beer with the Devil” was written by Nocenti, co-plotted & penciled by John Romita Jr, and inked by Al Williamson.  It’s Christmas Eve, and Daredevil is in bad shape.  For the hero of Hell’s Kitchen, it’s the end of what’s been a horrific year.  After the devastating events of the classic “Born Again” storyline, Matt Murdock had been attempting to rebuild his shattered life.  His efforts were thwarted by Typhoid Mary, the femme fatale assassin in the employ of the Kingpin.  Typhoid orchestrated a campaign to attack Daredevil mentally, physically, and emotionally.  Barely surviving this brutal gauntlet, Daredevil then experienced the horrors of “Inferno” as the demons of Limbo assaulted Manhattan.  Now the shell-shocked, scarred vigilante sits in a bar, nursing a beer.  He is surrounded by other social outcasts who also have nowhere else to go on the holidays.

In the midst of this, a beautiful but enigmatic woman approaches Daredevil.  She starts to talk to him, telling a tale about betraying her husband.  The red-haired woman begins posing hypothetical questions, such as which is worse, stealing one dollar or one million, and then asking Daredevil if he believes he has made a difference as a hero.  Stating that “it’s too late for the world, the apple’s rotten, there’s no going back,” the strange woman seduces Daredevil, kissing him passionately.

Daredevil 266 pg 11

And while all this is going on, two brothers, Hector and Hugo, are drunkenly arguing.  Their squabble ends horribly, as Hector takes a broken bottle and stabs his brother in the stomach, killing him.  Daredevil realizes there is something wrong and violently punches the mystery woman away, and turns around to find a murder has taken place right under his nose, one he could easily have prevented if he had not been enthralled.

Daredevil turns back to the woman, whose shape shifts & changes, revealing her true form: the demon lord Mephisto.  The ruler of the underworld seizes the crimefighter, taunting and mocking him, throwing back in his face his actions as both Daredevil and Matt Murdock.  Mephisto appears to grow to immense size, and the bar is consumed by flames before the building comes crumbling down.  Claiming that Daredevil is powerless against evil, the devil finally vanishes, leaving Daredevil to plummet down to the street.

When Daredevil finally comes to in the snow, everything is back to normal, with no sign of any carnage or destruction.  Two concerned strangers from the bar help DD to his feet.  They ask if he wants to come with them to the soup kitchen for Christmas dinner, and he accepts.

Daredevil 266 pg 24

I can certainly relate to “A Beer with the Devil.”  There have been holidays past where I’ve found myself perched on a bar stool, drink in hand, ruminating on my solitude and unhappiness, wondering where my life went wrong, attempting to find solace among strangers.  As I said before, I think a lot of people feel that way around this time of year.

Nocenti’s writing on this issue is amazing.  She introduces the odd, colorful bar customers, effectively fleshing them out within just a few panels, given glimpses of entire lives lived outside the pages of this story.  They feel very authentic, just like the types of people you’d see if you walked into some hole-in-the-wall drinking establishment in Manhattan.  I’ve met quite a few characters like these during my bar-crawling days.

Mephisto is an interesting character to utilize.  As a Satanic figure, he is the exact opposite of the Messiah, the being whose birth Christmas is supposed to celebrate.  The lord of the damned would want to slander and blaspheme this most holy of occasions, to subvert the message of peace and hope.  Targeting Daredevil, tempting him, making him feel ineffectual, corrupting a noble soul who has already been through so much pain & suffering in order to finally tip him over the edge, is a very Biblical action.

And then, at the very end, Nocenti offers up a moment of hope.  A small gesture of human kindness, strangers extending a helping hand… that is the true spirit of the holiday.  It is a message all too often lost in the rush to buy the most presents or put up the most decorations.  Reflecting on that final page, I thought about my own present circumstances.  I have a lot of personal problems, along with many accompanying fears.  I have no idea what 2014 is going to bring for me.  But at least I know that this holiday season I’m not going to be alone.  I have my girlfriend.  Yeah, things are certainly not perfect between the two of us.  But when is any relationship ever without problems?  At least we have each other, which is much better than sitting on that lonely bar stool.

Daredevil 266 pg 30

The artwork on Daredevil #266 is wonderful.  John Romita Jr is one of those artists who always turn in very solid, professional work.  He isn’t especially flashy, but he gets the job done, effectively tells a story and establishes a real sense of atmosphere.  I think he is a rather underrated penciler.  “A Beer with the Devil” is one of the best efforts of his career, as he draws the mundane and the metaphysical side-by-side.  Romita’s redesign of Mephisto is amazingly horrific.

I’m a huge fan of Al Williamson, who was himself an amazing penciler.  Williamson specialized in sci-fi and space opera, memorably illustrating Weird Science, Flash Gordon, and Star Wars.  I wonder how he felt about inking Romita’s pencils for these grim, philosophical tales of gritty urban crime and, later on, the surreal journey that Nocenti took DD on when she sent him into Hell itself for a confrontation with Mephisto and his son Blackheart (see Daredevil #s 270 and 278-282 for that mind-blowing odyssey).  Whatever the case, Williamson was a great fit for Romita’s pencils, and the two of them were the perfect art team for Nocenti’s thought-provoking writing on the series.

At first glance, Daredevil #266 probably seems a very bizarre story to look at to celebrate the holiday season.  But actually it is a very appropriate, genuine piece of writing.  Rather than putting on a façade of joy and frivolity, “A Beer with the Devil” acknowledges that, yes, the world is deeply messed up, there is more than enough evil & hypocrisy to go around, and life just isn’t fair.  But, as the ending demonstrates, by offering a little bit of kindness and selflessness towards others, perhaps you can help make things just a tiny bit better, one day at a time.  And that might just be a sentiment Jesus would agree with.

Separating the art from the artist: creators and bad behavior

As someone who reads a lot of books & comics, who watches television & movies, who listens to music, from time to time the question arises: can you appreciate a work of art purely on its own merits, even when you do not like the artist who created it?  If you know that person is unpleasant, or sexist, or racist, or holds an extreme political view that is anathema to your sensibilities, are you still able to enjoy the products of his or her creativity?

That question has once again reared its head for me in the last couple of days.  It concerned independent comic book creator MariNaomi, author of Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22.  I learned that MariNaomi, while she had been participating on a panel discussion on LGBTQ issues at a comic book convention, had been, in her words, “sexually harassed” by a fellow panelist.  It very soon was revealed that mainstream comic book writer Scott Lobdell was the individual who had harassed her.  I do not want to get into the unpleasant details of what MariNaomi experienced, or discuss Lobdell’s apology, but you can read both of them for yourselves via these links.  I’ll still be here when you get back:

http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/marinaomi-harassed-comics-panel

http://comicsbeat.com/scott-lobdell-i-apologize-to-marinaomi/

Are we all caught up now?  Good.

When I was in high school and college in the 1990s, I was a huge fan of Scott Lobdell’s writing on books such as Excalibur, Marvel Comics Presents, and Uncanny X-Men.  I found his stories to be both extremely funny and emotionally moving & poignant.  Aside from a couple of issues here and there, I have not read his more recent work on DC’s New 52, simply because I’m generally dissatisfied with the tone of that whole line, and the top-down creative style where editorial micro-manages their writers, leading to a lot of lackluster material.  I’d heard people complaining that within the pages of Red Hood and the Outlaws, Lobdell had turned Starfire into a nymphomaniac or something like that, but I just shrugged and figured it was something that his editors had directed him to do.  It didn’t really matter to me, since I wasn’t reading that book.

Now, though, having found out about Lobdell’s behavior at that comic convention, the manner in which he treated MariNaomi, suddenly I’m wondering to myself if I can now go back and re-read his Marvel work from a couple of decades ago and still enjoy it.  In the pages of Uncanny X-Men, he often wrote about how mutants were outsiders or outcasts, very effectively continuing the theme of mutants as metaphors for minorities such as Jews or blacks or homosexuals.  Lobdell would script powerful scenes where characters such as Charles Xavier would encourage tolerance & acceptance towards people of all backgrounds.  Is all that just going to seem hollow and hypocritical now?

Remember to practice what you preach.

Remember to practice what you preach.

I realize that Lobdell is only human.  Maybe he was just having a bad day.  Maybe he’s a practical joker with poor judgment who acts like this around everyone.  Should he be crucified for behavior?  Yet at the same time, we definitely cannot just casually brush aside all of the mental and emotional anguish MariNaomi obviously experienced because of his behavior.

So, getting back to my question, can I still, personally, read Lobdell’s work and enjoy it?  Thinking it over, there are numerous examples of creative types who had all manner of glaring flaws & defects, who behaved badly but who were brilliant writers or artists or musicians or actors.  Is anyone familiar with Ty Cobb?  He was one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived.  He was also, according to numerous sources, an extremely nasty individual who treated other people like crap and who would get into violent arguments with anyone & everyone at the drop of a hat, on or off the baseball field.  His teammates often hated his guts, but they wanted him up at bat because they knew he could help lead them to victory.

H.P. Lovecraft was an anti-Semite, and Robert E. Howard was probably something of a racist.  I still very much enjoy the fiction of both men, although if either of them were still alive, I doubt I would want to be in the same room with them.  Looking at a much more recent example, after September 11th Frank Miller seems to have gone off the rails, turning into an ultra right wing reactionary who demonizes Liberals and the Occupy Wall Street protestors as traitors.  Am I still able to enjoy his work?  Yes… sometimes.  I still think that Batman: Year One is amazing.  But I am totally repulsed by the extreme xenophobia and the idolization of fascism & violence on display in both 300 and Holy Terror.

So, yes, sometimes I can enjoy the works of controversial, offensive figures, as long as their ideologies do not permeate their creations.  But on other occasions, their upsetting behavior has become so associated for me with them that I find it distasteful to look at their works, even if their art has nothing to do with their beliefs.

What I really need to do is give this some time, and see how I feel about Lobdell’s writing a few months from now.  Maybe distance will give me a better perspective.  But right now, in the present, I really do not want to look at anything he’s worked on.

There is one last thing.  I see that the usual Internet trolls have, predictably, come out of the woodwork, either to defend Scott Lobdell, or to attack MariNaomi, arguing that she is “oversensitive” or “cannot take a joke” or whatever.  To those people, I have this to say: Imagine that was your wife or girlfriend or daughter or mother or sister who had been subjected to Lobdell’s poor, tasteless attempts at humor.  Would you have found his behavior towards your loved one to be acceptable?  Would you tell your significant other that they needed to “get a sense of humor” about what happened?  For your sake, I hope not.

Yeah, I've been there.

Yeah, I’ve been there.

As for myself, I’m not perfect.  God knows I’ve made mistakes.  When I was in my teens and twenties on a few occasions I said or did things that were sexist.  And there was this one kid in Junior High who was always being an asshole & treating me like crap, someone who I’d heard rumors that he was gay.  So one day I just got so pissed off at him that I shouted a homophobic slur at him.  And even to this day, from time to time I will put my foot in my mouth and accidentally offend people without meaning to because sometimes I’m still socially awkward.  Looking back on all those incidents, I realize what I did was wrong, and if I saw any of those people today I would absolutely apologize for my behavior.

I guess we can all take this incident as a lesson that we should be careful about what we say to others.  Even when we mean no harm, if we choose our words poorly we can unintentionally end up really hurting other people.

Happy birthday to Tony Isabella

I wanted to wish an early birthday to the super-talented comic book writer, critic & columnist Tony Isabella, who was born on December 22, 1951.  I’ve enjoyed Isabella’s comic books since I was a kid.  His straightforward, no-nonsense, yet slyly humorous observations on society & popular culture in his online blog and in the pages of the late, lamented Comic Buyer’s Guide are always informative & insightful.

Ghost Rider 7 cover

Isabella started in the comic book biz in 1972 as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics.  He also wrote a diverse assortment of Marvel titles in 1970s, among them Daredevil, Captain America, the “It, the Living Colossus” feature in Astonishing Tales, Monsters Unleashed, and Power Man.  He co-created The Champions, and revamped the short-lived heroine The Cat aka Greer Grant Nelson into the popular Tigra in Giant-Sized Creatures #1.  For a time Isabella was the regular writer on Ghost Rider.  He intended to stay on that particular series longer than he did.  Unfortunately, one of his issues was rewritten at literally the last minute by Jim Shooter, in the process derailing a significant ongoing storyline, and Isabella walked off the title in protest.

In 1977, Isabella created Black Lightning, the very first African American character to have a solo title at DC Comics.  Paired with then-newcomer Trevor Von Eeden, Isabella wrote the first ten issues of the Black Lightning series.  Also at DC, in the mid-1980s, working with artist Richard Howell, Isabella began a major Hawkman storyline.  That’s when my young ten year old self first discovered Isabella’s writing.  I discussed the interesting premise of that series in my recent blog post about Richard Howell.  I think that Isabella was doing some good, suspenseful writing on Hawkman, and it is unfortunate that he departed the series due to a disagreement with editorial.

Captain Universe TPB pg 135

In the early 1990s, Marvel editor Jim Salicrup gave a number of interesting assignments to Isabella.  These included a handful of issues of Web of Spider-Man, a trio of Rocket Racer short stories, and back-up stories for the 1990 Spider-Man annuals featuring Ant-Man and Captain Universe.  Both of those tales were illustrated by the legendary Steve Ditko.  In the Captain Universe story, the latest recipient of the Uni-Power was a two year old child named Eddie, named after Isabella’s own son.  This delightful story also featured a cute nod to Ditko’s classic Gorgo and Konga comic books published by Charlton in the 1960s.  (Isabella’s story is collected in the Captain Universe: Power Unimaginable trade paperback.  Go get it!)

Salicrup became editor-in-chief of Topps Comics in 1992.  Several of the titles published by Topps were based on some of the many previously undeveloped series concepts devised by Jack Kirby, and were referred to as the “Kirbyverse.”  Among these was Satan’s Six, an entertaining four issue horror comedy miniseries which Isabella wrote.

Satan's Six 1 cover

In 1995, Isabella had the opportunity to return to Black Lightning, a character who he has said on numerous occasions has great personal significance to him.  Working with the immensely talented artist Eddie Newell, Isabella wrote some amazing, emotional, moving stories.  However, apparently due to some behind-the-scenes editorial shenanigans, Isabella was removed from the book after issue #8, and the series then sputtered to cancellation just five issues later.  Despite this unfortunate turn of events, I definitely look back on those first eight issues by Isabella & Newell, as well as their ten page Black Lightning story in the DCU Holiday Bash II, as among the best mainstream material published by DC in the 1990s.

Isabella has also collaborated with fellow Comic Buyer’s Guide columnist Bob Ingersoll on several occasions.  They co-wrote the Star Trek: All of Me special published by DC in 2000, a Star Trek novel, a prose short story in the anthology The Ultimate Super-Villains, and the novel Captain America: Liberty’s Torch.  I enjoyed that last one.  The book featured illustrations by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod.  In it, Cap is captured and placed on trial by a fanatical, ultra right wing militia that has accused him of betraying the country to minorities and foreigners.  What was interesting about how Isabella & Ingersoll wrote the novel is that they never really reveal to us Cap’s own opinions are on all of these controversial issues.  Instead of having Steve Rogers get on a soap box to offer a civics lecture, the authors pretty much leave it up to the reader to decide for himself or herself Cap’s views on globalization, immigration, taxes, and big government.

I was thrilled when Isabella recently had the opportunity to return to comic books and write the six issue miniseries The Grim Ghost, published by Atlas Comics in 2011.  Isabella did really great work on the series, which also featured amazingly atmospheric artwork by Kelley Jones & Eric Layton.  Regrettably, Atlas ended up having some distribution problems, and it took me quite a while to snag a copy of the final issue.  That also seems to have prevented a trade paperback collection from being published.  All that aside, it was a really good series, and it is well worth tracking down.

Grim Ghost 6 cover

Looking back over Isabella’s body of fiction, as well as his work as a columnist, a great deal of his own viewpoints and opinions come out through his writings.  Isabella definitely has an ultra liberal perspective.  Nope, I am not jumping to conclusions, is says so right on his Facebook page, under Political Views: “Very Liberal.”  I’m a bit more middle-of-the-road myself, and occasionally I’ll read something of his and think to myself “Whoa there, Tony, might want to rein it in just a little!”  But I certainly respect the deep sincerity of his views.

He is also a very spiritual person.  And not, I certainly must add, in a “If you don’t believe in God, you are going to Hell” sort of way.  Isabella sees God as a loving entity, not a punishing one.  His protagonists often find redemption and the strength to go on via their faith in a higher power, by resolving to do good and set aside their own inner flaws & defects of character. That is what Isabella was trying to do with the character of John Blaze, who had sold his soul to the Devil, within the pages of Ghost Rider, and why he was so angry when Shooter threw a monkey wrench into those plans.  This is a theme that he returned to so effectively with the characters of Matthew Dunsinane and Michael Colavito in The Grim Ghost. The importance of casting off pride & resentment, and need to let go of the past, in order for each of these men to finally be free to escape from the purgatory known as the Fringe and find salvation, is one of the central messages of the series.

Something you may have noted in this blog post: Isabella seems to have had his share of clashes with editors at both Marvel and DC.  I think that this is indicative of a man who is very principled, ethical and passionate about his work, and who is unwilling to let editorial, or the corporate types overseeing them, impose what he sees as unreasonable demands upon him.  The comic book industry has innumerable examples of creators who have been exploited & abandoned by greedy, short-sighted corporate interests.  So I certainly admire Isabella for standing up for himself and not allowing others to steamroll him.

Black Lightning 5 cover

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Tony Isabella on a couple of occasions, first at one of the Big Apple conventions over a decade ago, and then at New York Comic Con in 2011.  I later found out that those were the only two NYC conventions that he’s done in the last two decades!  Talk about good timing.  Both times I found him to be a very pleasant fellow.  Having followed his comic books and columns for so long, it was a pleasure to meet him on those two occasions, and to have him autograph some of the books that he has worked upon.

Have a very happy birthday, Tony.  I sincerely hope that there are many more years, as well as many more stories, to come for you.  Keep up the great work.

Strange Comic Books: Batman Legends of the Dark Knight #38

Having sorted through many of the comic books I wanted to get rid of, and those I wanted to hold on to, I decided that Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38 was definitely a keeper.  Legends of the Dark Knight was anthology series that DC Comics published from 1989 to 2007.  Numerous creative teams took turns crafting tales that were often only kind-of, sort-of in continuity, which led to all manner of interesting depictions of Batman’s early years as a crime fighter.   One of the most memorable of these was “Legend of the Dark Mite,” written by Alan Grant and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.  It was undoubtedly a wonderfully weird and strange issue.

Batman LOTDK 38 cover

“Legend of the Dark Mite” sees the reintroduction of the oddball Bat-Mite to the post-Crisis DCU.  Bat-Mite was one of those offbeat characters who debuted during that odd period in the 1950s and early 60s when the Batman stories had drifted quite afar from their noir roots.  During this time, the Caped Crusader would end up fighting alien invaders and monsters, as well as getting transformed into “The Zebra Batman,” or wearing an assortment of unusual one-off costumes.  Bat-Mite was an Imp originating from the Fifth Dimension, much like pesky Superman foe Mister Mxyzptlk.  Bat-Mite considered himself Batman’s biggest fan and, dressed in a knock-off of the Dark Knight’s costume, attempted to assist his idol in fighting crime.  Unfortunately, Bat-Mite was a klutz who was unable to use his powers very effectively, and so he was usually much more of a nuisance than an ally to Batman.  He was definitely written for comedic effect, and so by the time Batman returned to his darker pulp roots in the 1970s Bat-Mite had pretty much faded from the picture.

Alan Grant and Kevin O’Neill decided to bring back Bat-Mite in 1992, albeit with the proviso of “maybe he’s real, and maybe he’s not.”  They deftly, and humorously, accomplish this by having the events of “Legend of the Dark Mite” told almost entirely from the point of view of Overdog, a petty criminal & drug addict who has more or less fried his brain through the abuse of controlled substances.

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 7

Overdog and a couple of his burn-out pals come up with the none-too-brilliant idea of robbing & killing one of Gotham’s big-time drug dealers.  After brutally slaying him and consuming vast quantities of pills, they are discovered by Batman.  While the Dark Knight is busy tangling with the other two addicts, Overdog flees.  Before he can make it very far, though, he comes across, in his words, “an elf dressed in a crazy-looking Batman costume.”  (I love that look on Batman’s face in the second panel on page seven!)

Bat-Mite insists that Overdog go back and surrender to Batman.  The addict doesn’t take kindly to this suggestion and empties his machine gun at the Imp point-blank.  This, of course, has absolutely no effect on Bat-Mite, who uses his powers to repeatedly bludgeon Overdog’s head with his own firearm.  And then some of Overdog’s associates arrive, looking for the money he owes them.  Spotting Bat-Mite, Johnny Caruso & his gang all open fire but, once again, they’re completely ineffectual.  All this serves to do is make Bat-Mite angry.  And you won’t like Bat-Mite when he’s angry.  Oh, wait, is that a different character?  Well, in any case, this happens:

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 10

Bat-Mite on steroids proceeds to violently demolish Caruso’s crew.  He then seizes Overdog and “pops” him back into his home dimension.  As Bat-Mite explains it, he and the rest of the magical inhabitants of his universe have been observing Earth through their “windows of the world.”  To entertain themselves, they dress up as their favorite heroes & villains and re-enact their adventures.

Bat-Mite returns Overdog to Earth, where the junkie has a sudden spiritual experience… or something.  Realizing he has wasted his life with drugs and violence, Overdog vows to go straight.  Of course, Batman understandably believes that Overdog is crazy, and hauls him off to Arkham Asylum, where he’s declared insane.  And, despite the fact that there are aspects to the case that Batman cannot explain, such as “a grand piano chasing two men uphill” and Overdog knowing about events that he shouldn’t have, Batman just cannot bring himself to believe in a magical elf wearing a Bat-suit.  The Dark Knight departs Arkham, leaving a straight-jacketed Overdog to shriek & scream to a Bat-Mite that only he can see “I’m not mad!”

Wow, that was absolutely crazy! “Legend of the Dark Mite” is really great, twisted stuff by Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill.  I’m a big fan of both their works.

Grant has been a regular contributor to the weekly British sci-fi comic anthology 2000 AD for many years, scripting numerous installments of Judge Dredd and Anderson: Psi Division.  In the later, he did wonderful work developing the character of Cassandra Anderson, offering an alternate, more cerebral & spiritual perspective on the dystopian Mega City One to the stark, hard-boiled view often seen in the Dredd stories.  Here in the States, Grant wrote many issues of Batman and Detective Comics in the late 1980s and early 90s, often collaborating with the talented, underrated Norm Breyfogle.  Grant also penned Lobo for quite a number of years, using the series as an ultra-violent send-up of grim & gritty comics.

Oh, yes, Grant has also written The Terminator for comics several times, but if you ask him about it, he’s liable to mutter “Bloody Terminator” under his breath. (When tasked with writing Superman vs. The Terminator, he sardonically commented “What am I supposed to do, give them Kryptonite batteries?”)  I met him at a convention in Bristol, England back in 1999, and since my comic collection was back in the States, all I had for him to autograph were a couple of issues of The Terminator.  I made sure to apologize profusely!

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 17

As for O’Neill, he really has an absolutely unique, bizarre style.  He also started out working on 2000 AD, where he co-created the Nemesis the Warlock feature with Pat Mills.  O’Neill began working on American comics in the mid-1980s, and infamously ran afoul of the Comics Code Authority, which back then wielded much more influence.  As O’Neill himself explained in 2001 to the Barbelith Webzine, “I was working on an Alan Moore story. The CCA objected – not to the actual story but to the style that it was drawn in. I had aliens being crucified and stuff like that. My editor asked if we could run it with a code sticker if we toned down the crucifixion. They said there was NOTHING they could do to the artwork that would help. I loved that! I loved the idea that these old grannies were sitting in an office in New York poring over every comic page. It was 1950s.”

Nowadays O’Neill is well known for his collaborations with Alan Moore on the various League of Extraordinary Gentlemen miniseries and graphic novels.  O’Neill’s strange, hyper-detailed work is absolutely perfect for establishing the various pseudo-historical periods that series is set in, as well as fitting in all of Moore’s obscure literary & cultural references.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38 was likely the first time I saw O’Neill’s work.  It totally blew my mind.  The scenes set in Bat-Mite’s home dimension, with his fellow Imps recreating the adventures of their costumed counterparts in the “regular” universe, were strange & hysterical.  A few years later, in 1999, when I was in Britain and had the opportunity to pick up quite a few of the 2000 AD back issues and trade paperbacks, I really became a fan of O’Neill’s style.  I was subsequently very happy that he really came into the spotlight here in the States via his work with Moore on League.

Letterer extraordinaire John Workman also did superbly on “Legend of the Dark Mite.”  His fonts & calligraphy were really great at helping to establish & drive home the ridiculous, insane, and humorously twisted material.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: lettering is such a key, overlooked aspect of the overall storytelling process in comic books.  Workman is among the best, and his lettering really complements O’Neill’s artwork.

Legends of the Dark Knight #38 is definitely worth tracking down.  You can find it on Ebay very easily (I just took a look, and found over a dozen people selling copies).  The issue was also collected in the Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight trade paperback published in 1994.  That’s now out of print, but it is available at rather reasonable prices on Amazon.  And the rest of the material collected within it is also very good.

Comic book reviews: Velvet #1-2

I’ve been looking forward to the new Image Comics series Velvet since it was first announced.  The team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting did really great work on Captain America, and I was excited to see what they would do on a creator-owned project.

Velvet is an espionage / adventure series set in 1973.  The main character, Velvet Templeton, was once a field operative for the ultra top secret covert agency known as ARC-7, participating in numerous operations between 1949 and 1956.  After leaving the field under circumstances as yet unrevealed to the reader, Templeton became the secretary to ARC-7’s director.  Think of her as Emma Peel crossed with Miss Moneypenny.

Velvet 1 pg 4 and 5

The opening arc of Velvet, titled “Before the Living End” (Ian Fleming would have loved that), begins as one of ARC-7’s top operatives, Jefferson Keller, successfully completes an assassination in Paris.  But en route out of the city, he is ambushed & murdered.  When news reaches ARC-7 headquarters in London, it is immediately suspected that the killer was acting on inside information, meaning that the organization has a leak.  Templeton takes part in the investigation, poring through Keller’s field reports & paperwork.  Before she can make much headway, evidence emerges that one of ARC-7’s former agents, Frank Lancaster, is the traitor.

Despite this, Templeton, who once carried a torch for Lancaster, believes he must be innocent.  She heads over to one of his off-the-record safe houses, hoping to find him and talk to him.  However, when Templeton arrives, she finds Lancaster has been killed, brutally stabbed to death.  And before Templeton can make sense of what is happening, the investigative unit of ARC-7 bursts into the room, accusing her of treason.  Not knowing about her field experience, and thinking her a mere secretary, they are quickly caught off-guard when Templeton goes on the offense, attacking them and fleeing the scene.

Now on the run, Templeton realizes that, in the course of her examinations of Keller’s paperwork, she unknowingly must have come across something that would have eventually led to the real traitor in ARC-7, and so was framed by the true culprit before she could connect the dots.  She quickly decides that the only way she will ever be able to clear her name is to immediately get out of the country and conduct her own investigation.

Brubaker does excellent work setting up the scenario for Velvet.  The protagonist of Velvet Templeton is definitely an interesting one.  While it is quite obvious that she is reluctant to have to wade back into the danger & violence of field work to prove her name, at the same time she has to acknowledge that being in action once again gives her a genuine adrenaline rush.  I’m looking forward to seeing her character and back story developed further in upcoming issues.

Velvet 1 pg 21

Another thing I like about Velvet Templeton is that she is an older woman, but she’s still depicted as capable, dangerous, and beautiful.  Most of the times in Western pop culture & fiction, male protagonists are able to age gracefully, but women are considered over-the-hill when they get to be 40.  We haven’t yet been given Templeton’s exact age, but we can do some guesswork.  Let’s say she was in her early 20s when she got started with ARC-7 in 1949.  That means she would be in her mid 40s in 1973.  It’s shown that, despite her years sitting behind a desk, she still works out and is in good shape, so I have no problem believing that she’s capable of some serious ass-kicking.

At the same time, Brubaker does not make her some sort of unstoppable killing machine.  I always had a problem with action heroes who seem invulnerable, taking out dozens of bad guys without breaking a sweat, rather than ending up all black & blue.  That’s one of the main reasons why I really appreciated the original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, as well as the very first Die Hard movie.  Yes, the literary version of Bond was a dangerous professional, but he often took quite a beating in the course of thwarting the bad guys.  The same goes for John McClane in his debut cinematic outing.  Such is the case with Velvet Templeton who, despite her abilities & experience, is out of practice & outnumbered, and consequently makes her escape from ARC-7 somewhat the worse for wear.  That makes her a much more human, believable character.

Actually, aside from Templeton’s “stealth suit” that looks very much like something from the Steranko issues of Nick Fury, so far this series has been very low-tech.  I think that’s one of the advantages of the story taking place in the early Seventies, before the computer revolution and miniaturization.   It looks like Templeton is going to have to conduct some old-fashioned sleuthing in order to clear her name, rather than spying on the bad guys with some kind of “nano-bugs” or getting a misfit hacker genius to magically uncover the evidence she needs.

I guess the only reservation I have is that, based on Brubaker’s past writing on both Captain America and Gotham Central, he does tend towards a decompressed style.  Looking at the pacing of these first two issues of Velvet, it is probably going to take a while for events to unfold.  Perhaps this is going to be one of those series that reads better as a trade paperback.  Well, I’ve already purchased the first two issues.  I can always just wait for a few more to come out and then read them all in one sitting.

Moving along to the art, it is exquisite.  I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Steve Epting’s work.  When I first saw it about two decades ago on Avengers, it was quite good, full of potential, although perhaps somewhat overwhelmed by Tom Palmer’s inking.  On each subsequent series that Epting worked on (X-Factor, the three part Invaders storyline in Marvel Universe, Aquaman, Crux, Captain America, Fantastic Four) you can witness the steady growth & improvement in his abilities.  His art on Velvet is some of the best he has ever done.  The covers for these first two issues are just superb.

By the way, when I first saw the cover to Velvet #1 previewed online several months ago, I immediately thought to myself “That’s Claudia Black!”  Yes, really, I think that Velvet Templeton looks just like Claudia Black of Farscape and Stargate SG-1 fame.  I actually asked Epting about this on Facebook several weeks ago.  He indicated that he had never seen either of those shows and was unfamiliar with Claudia Black.  But Epting did admit “She does look the part though!”  So there you have it.  If this ever gets adapted into a movie or TV series, Brubaker & Epting have the perfect suggestion for who should portray Velvet Templeton.  (And now I’m probably once again going to get some more grief from my girlfriend about having a thing for hot older British women.  I’ll just have to inform her that Claudia Black is actually from Australia!)

Yeah, I definitely think this casting could work!

Yeah, I definitely think this casting could work!

Okay, enough with the fantasy casting.  One other contributor whose work I must give credit to is colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser.  She did great work in the past on Captain America and other titles, coloring such diverse artists as Butch Guice, Chris Samnee and her husband Mitch Breitweiser.  It’s really nice to see her paired up with Epting, who she previously did not have an opportunity to work with.  They really make an excellent team here.  Breitweiser utilizes a very effective, vivid palette that conveys a palpable atmosphere, while never overwhelming Epting’s line work.  It’s a really delicate balancing act achieving that.  The importance of colorists, like inkers and letterers, are often underestimated.  Breitweiser’s coloring on Velvet has the quality of almost looking painted.  It’s brilliantly done.

As I find myself drifting more and more away from the Big Two, most of the comic books I read nowadays are from the smaller publishers.  I’m really glad to see two immensely talented individuals such as Brubaker and Epting on a creator-owned title.  Here’s hoping Velvet is a big success.  So far it’s off to an impressive start.

Caffeine and Capes: revisiting Top Cow’s Common Grounds

I finally managed to get rid of a whole bunch of the comic books that were cluttering up the apartment.  While I was digging through my long boxes, figuring out what to sell and what to keep, I came across a number of things that I liked which I hadn’t read in a while.  Time to revisit some old favorites, I thought.  And among these was Common Grounds.

Common Grounds 1 cover

Published by the Top Cow imprint of Image Comics in 2004, Common Grounds was a six issue miniseries written by Troy Hickman, with contributions from a number of extremely talented artists.  It initially began life as a mini comic titled Holey Crullers that Hickman had worked on with Jerry Smith a few years before.  Common Grounds was set around a nationwide chain of coffee shops that were frequented by costumed heroes & villains, a sort of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for super-humans.  The various Common Grounds stores serve as “neutral territory” where both crime-fighters and criminals can gather peaceably to enjoy a cup of joe and some doughnuts.

Hickman and his artistic collaborators introduce a cast who, on the surface, are expies for famous DC and Marvel characters.  Hickman utilizes these to both pay homage to and deconstruct various storytelling structures and devices of the superhero genre.  What I like about how Hickman goes about this is that he does so with a surprising lack of sarcasm or mockery.  All of his jibes are of the good-natured sort, and he takes equal aim at the implausible silliness of the early Silver Age and the grim & gritty trappings of more recent decades.  Common Grounds is simultaneously extremely funny and very poignant & serious.

Common Grounds 1 pg 11

In the past, it has sometimes been observed that superhero stories are really not effective vehicles for addressing legitimate social or political concerns, because in the end the demands of the genre require some sort of antagonist that the hero can punch out.  In reality, though, violence is not an ideal, long-term solution to resolving governmental corruption, poverty, racism, or pollution.  And this ties in precisely with the themes of Hickman’s stories.

As we find out, the whole chain of Common Grounds stores were established by Michael O’Brien, aka Big Money, a retired superhero-turned-billionaire.  His son, who sought to follow in his footsteps, ended up accidentally getting killed in a fight with another costumed vigilante that was caused by a misunderstanding.  O’Brien felt that if he could create a place where people with superpowers could safely sit down and talk things over, maybe those sorts of tragedies would occur less often, and more constructive resolutions to disagreements might emerge.

Indeed, that is the theme throughout the vignettes presented in these six issues.  Various superhumans, be they long-time allies, arch-enemies, or complete strangers, end up learning a great deal about each other, what it is that drives them, and just how similar they actually are.  Hickman does superb work introducing & fleshing out these individuals within a few short pages.  At the end of each story, I really wanted to see more of these characters.

By the way, one of my favorite moments from Common Grounds was when Hickman did a play on the famous genre trope Cut Lex Luthor a Check which notes that the pre-Crisis mad scientist Luthor, if he had really been smart about getting rich, instead of building all sorts of crazy giant robots or death rays to rob banks, should have just sold them to the military or some big corporation for a fortune.

(Of course, the post-Crisis Luthor is a billionaire industrialist who made most of his money legitimately, and he was even more evil & twisted than his old incarnation.  This just goes to show that someone with an anti-social or sociopathic personality isn’t likely to play by society’s rules even if it is the most logical thing to do, simply because they find it too enjoyable to screw up other people’s lives & defy authority.)

Hickman reveals in issue #6 that Big Money once saved the entire universe simply by paying Baron Existence a whopping twenty-seven million dollars not to detonate his reality-destroying Anti-Matter Bomb.  In an ironic twist, though, the Baron then spent the next two decades being harassed by the IRS.

Common Grounds 6 pg 13

I mentioned that Common Grounds had an impressive array of artists.  Each issue has a story penciled by Dan Jurgens and inked by Al Vey.  I’ve been a fan of Jurgens’ work since he was writing & penciling Booster Gold and Superman at DC.  He does good, solid work, and Vey’s inks are a good fit.  Among the other illustrators whose work appeared in this miniseries are George Perez, Michael Avon Oeming, Chris Bachalo, Sam Kieth, and Carlos Pacheco.

Illustrating the cover for Common Grounds #1 is J. Scott Campbell.  I’m not the biggest fan of his work, but I definitely agree it is a really nice piece.  The other five issues are topped by beautiful covers by Argentine artist Rodolfo Migliari.  This is some of his earliest professional work, and since then he’s done quite a bit at Image, Dark Horse, DC, and Marvel.  One of his pieces for this series, the cover to #4, is a homage to the famous Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks.”

Common Grounds 4 cover

I initially picked up Common Grounds back in 2004 because, well, I drink a lot of coffee, probably much too much.  I like to take my comic books to the coffee shop and read them there.  For instance, I re-read Common Grounds yesterday at Norma’s Café in Queens.  Good place.  Y’know, if I lived in a fictional superhero universe, I’d probably end up being exposed to radioactive coffee beans and turning into Captain Caffeine, or some such nonsense.  Anyway, my copious coffee consumption has caused me to pick up quite a few pages of original comic book artwork that feature characters drinking caffeinated beverages.  So, when Common Grounds originally came out, I decided it was required reading.  And, yes, I did eventually acquire artwork from the series, specifically a Jurgens & Vey page from issue #5 that I purchased from The Artist’s Choice.

It’s been nearly a decade since Common Grounds was released.  It was a great read with superb art.  I definitely hope that one of these days Troy Hickman has the opportunity to write another series.  And, y’know, the folks at Top Cow could always throw in some background appearances by the Common Grounds stores in their other books.  It’d be the perfect place for Sara Pezzini to pick up her morning java.