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.

RCO005

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.

RCO009_w

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.

RCO012

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.

Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 12

In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 21

This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.