Comic book reviews: Gotham City Garage

It’s been a few years since I’ve regularly followed any DC Comics titles.  However, over the past several months I have bought a number of DC trade paperbacks.

I eventually noticed a general theme to these TPBs: They had stories that were set on Earth 2, or in the future, or in alternate realities. I’ve come to realize that while I like a lot of DC characters, I long ago got tired of monthly titles where there is a never-ending illusion of change. On the other hand, stories set on other Earths, or eras, or that fall under the “Elseworlds” umbrella provide creators with opportunities to present different takes on familiar characters, and tell stories that are more self-contained, with somewhat greater consequences.

(It’s funny… When I was a teenage comic book fan I was hung up on continuity, on whether or not stories were “real” and actually “counted.” Nowadays I just want to read an enjoyable, intelligent story, and it doesn’t matter to me if it takes place on Earth 67 or Earth B or whatever.)

Gotham City Garage Vol 1 cover

Gotham City Garage falls into that “alternate reality” category.  No, it is NOT a book about the guy who repairs the Batmobile (although that was actually a pretty good episode of Batman: The Animated Series).  Inspired by a line of collectible statues that re-imagined several of DC’s female character as tattooed chopper chicksGotham City Garage was a digital first series that was then published as a twelve issue miniseries that was later collected into two trade paperbacks.

This past June artist Lynne Yoshii was a guest at the Women in Comics convention at the Brooklyn Public Library.  I was not previously familiar with Yoshii, but the art she had on display looked incredible, so I purchased one of the issues of Gotham City Garage which contained her work.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and subsequently got the first TPB.  The second one finally came out last month.

Gotham City Garage is written by Collin Kelly & Jackson Lanzing.  After the majority of the Earth was devastated by an environmental catastrophe, Lex Luthor seized control of Gotham City, which he has rebuilt as a domed city called the Garden.  Aided by a fascist Batman and an army of robots known as “Gardeners,” Luthor implanted “Ridealongs” within the brains of the population.  These  implants pacify negative emotions and instill loyalty to Luthor.

Only a handful of individuals escaped becoming brainwashed zombies in Luthor’s dystopia.  They are now based out of the Gotham City Garage, a safe haven in the wastelands built by Natasha Irons.

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Kelly and Lanzing utilize the teenage Kara Gordon as the audience identification figure.  Seemingly a loyal member of Luthor’s staff, Kara has to hide the fact that her Ridealong does not work.  Outwardly she smiles brightly and chants “Lex loves you” but inwardly she is miserable, the only person with free will in a city of lobotomized slaves.

The first issue opens with the Gardeners finally rumbling to Kara’s secret.  She is only saved by the intervention of Jim Gordon, who tells her to flee the Garden.  He also informs the shocked teenager that she is not actually his daughter, that he adopted her when she was an infant to protect her from Luthor.  Escaping the city, exposed to yellow sunlight for the first time, Kara quickly realizes that she has superpowers, and is in fact an alien.

Fleeing the Gardeners, Kara encounters chopper-riding rebels from the Garage: Big Barda, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Silver Banshee.  Initially suspicious of her, the women nevertheless help Kara defeat the Gardeners and bring her to their headquarters.  Although naïve and inexperienced, Kara / Supergirl joins the rebels, quickly becoming an important ally in their struggle to stay free from Luthor’s control.

Gotham City Garage is a female-driven book.  The majority of the protagonists are women.  Kelly and Lanzing do excellent work writing Supergirl, Batgirl, Big Barda, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and the other heroines.

I enjoyed the student & mentor relationship they set up between the young, idealistic Kara and the embittered Barda, who all these years later still suffers PTSD from her horrific upbringing on Apokolips.  The voices that Kelly & Lanzing give to both Kara and Barda feel authentic.

Gotham City Garage 1 double page spread

The series offers up interesting and visually striking re-imaginations of a number of DC’s iconic characters.  One of the most effective of these is Harley Quinn, not just visually, but also conceptually.  Although incredibly popular, Harley Quinn can nevertheless be a problematic figure.  She is a woman who was manipulated by, and is in an abusive relationship with, the psychotic Joker.  After she migrated from DC’s animated universe into its mainstream continuity and spun off into a solo title, Harley Quinn’s ties to the Joker were often downplayed.  Obviously the writers & editors at DC realized that it would be awkward to have a series starring a character who was a disciple to a mass murderer.  Nevertheless, you still had a character whose origins were rooted in emotional abuse and Stockholm Syndrome.

The way that Gotham City Garage improves upon Harley Quinn is by providing her with an agency lacking in her mainstream counterpart.  In this reality Dr. Harleen Quinzel was recruited by Luthor to develop the Ridealongs.  Agreeing to work with Luthor as much for self-preservation as to satisfy her scientific curiosity, Quinzel perfects the system that gives Luthor control of the city’s populace.  Too late realizing that she has enabled Luthor to turn the people into mindless drones, Quinzel rebels.  Attempting to both sabotage the Ridealongs and free herself from Luthor’s control, Quinzel deliberately scrambles her own brain patterns.  This results in a new, humorously irreverent, sarcastic personality with a penchant for extreme violence.

In what is an effective turn-around, it is Harley who creates the Joker.  She inspires Lloyd, one of her former patients who she liberated, to adopt her outrageous sense of fashion and her dedication to cartoonish acts of anarchy.

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The twelve issue series is a more or less complete arc that reaches a definite conclusion that nevertheless leaves open the possibility of future stories.  There was at least one dangling subplot, namely what happens to Zatanna and Silver Banshee, but perhaps Kelly & Lanzing were leaving that for another day.

The artistic line-up for Gotham City Garage is impressive.  Certainly I have to give much praise to Lynne Yoshii, who got me interested in this series in the first place.  Yoshii has a really fun, dynamic style.  She also does really good work with her storytelling, her layouts delivering both action and emotional character moments.  Yoshii’s pencils for issue #2, which are inked by Jose Marzan Jr, were both exciting and humorous.  I hope that we see more from her in the near future.

I also like the artwork by Brian Ching.  He has a style somewhat reminiscent of Kieron Dwyer and Dan Panosian.  Ching’s work has a gritty tone that is also slightly cartoony & exaggerated, which is perfect for the post-apocalyptic setting.

Another effective contributor to Gotham City Garage is Aneke, who illustrates “Bad Seeds” in issue #3, which spotlights Harley Quinn, and flashes back to reveal her origin.  Plus I love how Aneke draws Harley’s wacky pet hyenas.

As I observed in the past, it appears to take a particular skill set to work on these “digital first” titles.  A penciler needs to be able to lay out the pages so that the top and bottom halves work as separate pieces on the computer screen, but also work together as a single, uniform page in the print edition.  I feel that most of the pencilers who contributed to Gotham City Garage did a fairly good job at accomplishing this.

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The covers are mostly of the pin-up type.  I usually am not fond of these types of covers, since they reveal little about the actual contents inside the books.  Unfortunately that seems to be the default style for DC (and Marvel) cover art in the 21st Century.  At least most of them are well drawn.  Dan Panosian’s variant cover for issue #1 featuring Wonder Woman is certainly striking, and it was a good choice to re-use to for the first collected edition.

Also along for the motorcycle ride are colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick and letterer Wes Abbott, both of whom do good work.

Gotham City Garage is a fun series with good artwork, an enjoyable and thoughtful alternate take on the DC universe.

Summertime with the Amazing Heroes swimsuit special

It’s the end of August and summer is winding down.  Yes, technically it doesn’t actually end until September 23rd.  However, the unofficial end of the summer season here in the States is Labor Day, which is only a week away.  Most people regard these as the closing days of summer.

So before all the kiddies return to school I wanted to end the summer with an appropriate post.  Let’s cast our eyes back to 1988 and the pages of Amazing Heroes #138, their second annual swimsuit issue.

For younger readers, Amazing Heroes was published by Fantagraphics between 1981 and 1992.  It featured in-depth articles and interviews on both mainstream comic books and the ever-growing independent scene.  For most of its existence Amazing Heroes was edited by Kim Thompson.

Amazing Heroes had a few swimsuit editions in the late 1980s and early 90s.  Unlike many of the comic book swimsuit specials that would follow from other publishers that were tacky T&A fests, Amazing Heroes approached theirs with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  A diverse selection of artists contributed to their specials.

Amazing Heroes 138 cover signed

The cover to Amazing Heroes #138 is penciled by the legendary Neal Adams and inked by Art Nichols.  It features four lovely ladies from Adams’ creator-owned Continuity Studios books.  I’m not familiar with the gals in the middle.  But on the left is Ms. Mystic and on the right is Samuree.  I always chuckle at this one.  In the Ms. Mystic series the title character’s costume is always rendered by Adams with zip-a-tone.  So the joke here is that, in lieu of a swimsuit, Ms. Mystic is wearing an actual sheet of zip-a-tone to the beach.

I got this autographed by Adams recently.  It’s a lovely piece by him, a playfully sexy pin-up illustration.  I hope one of these days Adams collects his creator-owned material into trade paperbacks.  I feel that is an often-overlooked aspect of his career.

Here’s a look at just a few of my favorites from the many great pin-ups featured in Amazing Heroes #138…

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 31 John Workman Big Barda

John Workman renders Big Barda of Jack Kirby’s New Gods in a bikini.  Workman is best known for his extensive work as a letterer, frequently working with Walter Simonson.  But Workman is also a talented artist.  As can be seen from this, he also possesses a great sense of humor.  This is a cute send-up of good girl art, simultaneously sexy and self-deprecating.  That “tapioca pudding” line totally cracks me up.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 38 Hernandez Bros

If you are Fantagraphics and you’re going to do a swimsuit special, certainly you’re going to ask two of your best artists, Love and Rockets co-creators Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, to contribute a piece.  After all, both brothers are well-regarded for their depictions of the female form.  Of course, Beto and Jaime draw some good looking guys, too.  Here’s a jam piece by Los Bros Hernandez.  On the left is Israel by Gilbert.  On the right is Danita by Jaime.

This pin-up and a great deal of other material that had originally appeared in a variety of places was reprinted in the Hernandez Satyricon trade paperback.  As much as I love Gilbert & Jaime for their very compelling characters & intricate plotting it was also nice to have many of their beautiful pin-ups gathered together in one volume.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 39 Fred Hembeck Ditko Zone

I really enjoy Fred Hembeck’s fun, cartoony artwork.  He is a huge fan of Silver Age comic books, especially the Marvel Comics work of Steve Ditko.  Hembeck has done quite a few loving Ditko homages over the years, including this one, “Surfing in The Ditko Zone.”  It brings a smile to my face seeing Doctor Strange, Clea and the dread Dormammu in swimsuits riding the waves in one of Ditko’s psychedelic alternate dimensions.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 45 Reed Waller Omaha

As I’ve mentioned before, my girlfriend Michele is a fan of Omaha the Cat Dancer by writer Kate Worley and artist Reed Waller.  I’ve never read the series, but Michele has all of the collected editions, so one of these days I’ll sit down and immerse myself in it.  Omaha is an exotic dancer / stripper, and the book is definitely for mature readers.  The series was partly created as a protest against censorship.  It perfect makes sense that Waller would draw Omaha as “Ms. First Amendment” here.  It’s a beautiful illustration.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 72 Bo Hampton

In the late 1980s Eclipse Comics was publishing their revival of the Golden Age aviator hero Airboy written by Chuck Dixon.  The talented Bo Hampton was one of the artists who worked on it.  For this swimsuit issue Hampton renders Airboy / Davy Nelson III, the near-mindless swamp monster known as the Heap, and the femme fatale Valkyrie at the beach.  I always chuckle at the sight of the Heap in a pair of swim trunks!

IDW is currently reprinting Eclipse’s Airboy in a series of trade paperbacks.  I recommend getting them.  They contain excellent writing and artwork.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 84 Evan Dorkin

Here’s a great pin-up of the whole crew from Evan Dorkin’s irreverent creator-owned series Pirate Corp$ / Hectic Planet jamming at the beach.  It always amazes me at the insane amount of detail, as well as the just plain insanity, Dorkin always manages to pack into his artwork.  He draws a huge crowd of characters and successfully invests each one with an individual personality.  Dorkin is definitely one of the most talented and underrated comic book creators around.

In the late 1990s Slave Labor Graphics released three trade paperback collections of Hectic Planet.  You can find them on Amazon at affordable prices.  Again, I recommend them.  Dorkin did good work in those stories.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 81 Bruce Patterson original

Bringing things to a close, here is a scan of the original art for a pin-up of Purity Brown and Nemesis the Warlock from the pages of 2000 AD drawn by Bruce Patterson.  As an inker, Patterson has worked with a diverse number of pencilers.  This piece demonstrates Patterson is also able to do extremely good work on his own.  Purity Brown of course looks damn sexy in her black bikini.  As for Nemesis, there’s comedy gold in seeing the alien chaos lord clad in a black Speedo holding a beach ball.

I won this on Ebay in the late 1990s.  Only a couple other people bid on it, so I got it for an amazingly low price.  I owned it for almost 20 years before eventually selling it to another collector when I had some bills I had to pay.  The art board Patterson drew on had warped a bit by the time it made its way into my hands, but it still looked great.  This is a piece that I feel, due to the subtle shading Patterson utilized, did not reproduce especially well on black & white newsprint.

Older fans often look back at the demise Amazing Heroes in 1992 as an unfortunate setback to serious journalism on the industry.  I think that’s a valid argument.  Even more so when you consider that following in Amazing Heroes’ footsteps was Wizard Magazine.  If Amazing Heroes was the New York Times of comic book reporting then Wizard was definitely the NY Post!

Many of the old Amazing Heroes issues can be found on Ebay for low prices.  They’re well worth picking up for the interviews and the in-the-moment examination of the dramatic changes the comic book industry underwent throughout the 1980s.  And, of course, you also had fun features like their swimsuit specials.