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.

Should Superman kill?

I have not seen the new Superman movie Man of Steel.  But from what I have heard online, it has generated a fair amount of controversy.  Specifically, as I understand it, at the end of the film there is a tremendous battle that nearly decimates the city of Metropolis.  Superman, in order to prevent the Kryptonian arch-criminal General Zod from murdering even more people, kills him.

I can understand how this would cause some fans to be up in arms.  After all, Superman is supposed to be one of the most noble and ethical heroes in popular fiction.  As a firm believer in the sanctity of life, he is typically written as always looking to find non-lethal methods to defeat whatever menaces he is facing.

So, the question is, should Superman kill?  I think that every comic book reader will have differing views on the matter.  All I can do is offer my own individual opinion.  Feel free to agree or disagree:

I honestly feel that, yes, Superman should do everything in his power to preserve life.  And that means that, whenever possible, he ought to avoid the use of lethal force… but please note that I did say “whenever possible.”  Given his amazing powers & abilities, 99.999% of the time Superman will somehow find a way to stop his enemies without killing.  But, I think that inevitably there is going to be that 0.001%, a no win situation, so to speak, when Superman may be forced by circumstances to kill.

Let’s look at such a situation, one that occurred back in 1988.  The three part “Supergirl Saga” ran through Superman vol 2 #21, Adventures of Superman #444, and Superman #22.  The main creative force behind this story was writer-artist John Byrne.  Also on hand was Jerry Ordway, who co-plotted & penciled Adventures #444.  The final chapter in Superman #22 is titled, appropriately enough, “The Price.”

Adventures of Superman 444 cover

I need to set the stage for this one.  It’s a bit complicated, so bear with me.  In the aftermath of Crisis of Infinite Earths, the new continuity established by DC was that Clark Kent had never been Superboy, and he did not become a costumed superhero until he was an adult, when he took on the guise of Superman.  This created a huge problem for the Legion of Super-Heroes, who had Superboy as both their inspiration for forming and an actual long-time member.  So the creative types at DC came up with a solution of sorts:

Post-Crisis, it was retconned that the Legion’s arch-nemesis the Time Trapper had (for reasons best left unexplained here) created a “Pocket Universe” which was a duplicate of our own, but with all the life-bearing planets other than Earth or Krypton removed from it.  In this artificial reality, once again Krypton exploded, and baby Kal-El was rocketed to Earth, where the Kents adopted him.  Here he did become the teenage Superboy.  Every time Superboy traveled in time to meet up with the Legion, he would be travelling back & forth between the real universe’s 30th Century and the Pocket Universe’s 20th Century without even knowing it.  Oh, yes, the Time Trapper also ensured that no other superheroes came to exist in the Pocket Universe, i.e. no Wonder Woman, Batman, Justice League, Teen Titans, etc.

(Yeah, this was a really unwieldy explanation, and it certainly didn’t work perfectly, but I guess it was the best they could come up with at the time.)

Eventually Superboy dies in the future on a mission with the Legion.  Back in the Pocket Universe, no one knows what has happened to him, though.  That Earth’s version of Lex Luthor, although arrogant & egotistical, is nevertheless not a criminal, and he examines Superboy’s cache of inventions, hoping to contact the Legion.  Instead, he accidentally communicates with three Kryptonians imprisoned in the Phantom Zone: General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora.  The criminals trick Luthor into releasing them, and immediately embark upon the conquest of the Earth.

Despite this Earth’s absence of superheroes, humanity manages to fight Zod’s forces to a draw for a decade, aided by the fantastic weapons built by Luthor.  He even creates Supergirl, a “protomatter” life form based on Lana Lang, to help in the battle.  Eventually, though, the triad of criminals tire of the conflict and decide to wipe out humanity completely.  They use their powers to drill down to the Earth’s core, and the heat transforms the oceans into super-heated steam, which completely destroys the atmosphere.  Everyone on Earth is killed, save those in Smallville, who are living behind a force field erected by Luthor.

Realizing that the war is all but lost, a desperate Luthor transports Supergirl across to the “regular” universe to recruit Superman, hoping a genuine Kryptonian will be able to finally stop the Phantom Zone criminals.  Even with Superman’s presence, though, in the final battle the remainder of humanity is wiped out.  But a dying Luthor reveals to Superman the location of a piece of Gold Kryptonite, which the hero uses to strip Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora of their powers.  An understandably confused Superman asks Luthor why he didn’t use the Gold Kryptonite years before, thereby preventing all the bloodshed.  With his last breath, Luthor confesses that, driven by wounded pride, he wanted revenge on the Kryptonians for tricking him into setting them free.  “I wanted it to be by my hand that they were defeated.”  Remember what I said before about arrogance and ego?

Time for a slight digression… some readers have regarded this disclosure as a flaw in Byrne’s writing, stating Luthor’s actions make absolutely no sense, that it it an awkward mechanism to force Superman to deal with a trio of super-criminals who have committed genocide.  But if you look at Byrne’s entire run on the Superman titles, and his depiction of Lex Luthor throughout, this revelation actually makes a great deal of sense.

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The confession by the Pocket Universe Luthor very much mirrors a scene featuring the “real” Lex Luthor shown by Byrne less than two years earlier in Superman vol 2 #1.  Luthor learns that the Kryptonite-powered villain Metallo is on the verge of killing Superman.  Infuriated, Luthor had his forces snatch away Metallo.  Yes, Luthor certainly wants Superman dead.  But as Luthor himself explains, “No! No, that won’t do at all. I have promised Superman that when he dies it will be by my hand! And Lex Luthor always keeps his promises!”  The subsequent confession by the Pocket Universe Luthor in #22, using nearly identical wording, is undoubtedly a deliberate parallel by Byrne to demonstrate that even though this version was a more heroic individual he still shared many of the selfish, narcissistic flaws of his other self.

In any case, back to our story… so now Superman is confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem: what to do with General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora?  Yes, they have been de-powered, but they have the blood of billions of innocents on their hands, and they are defiantly unrepentant, gloating to Superman that they will somehow find a way to regain their powers and escape to his universe to wreck havoc there.  And so Superman is forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of his entire life.  Using Green Kryptonite, Superman executes the Phantom Zone criminals. (Click on the image below to read the entire scene.)

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Did Superman make the right decision?  It is very difficult to say for certain, but, yes, I think that he probably did.  Yes, it was extremely drastic.  But keep in mind that the Phantom Zone criminals had murdered the entire population of the Pocket Universe Earth, five billion people.  I am typically against capital punishment, but that is an absolutely monstrous crime.

Also, there is the question of exactly what else Superman could have done with Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora.  He had no way of exiling them back to the Phantom Zone.  And, as I explained before, the Pocket Universe had no other inhabited planets, so he could not hand them over to that dimension’s equivalent of the Green Lantern Corps for trial.  I suppose he could have brought Zod & Co back to his own reality and asked the Guardians of Oa to take charge of them, but who knows if those little blue bureaucrats would have even accepted that it fell under their jurisdiction.  And why even take the chance of removing them from the Pocket Universe?

Really, the only other choice Superman had was to maroon Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora on the dead Earth.  And if he did that he certainly couldn’t just leave them there unsupervised in case they somehow did regain their powers.  This would of course mean spending the rest of his own life in the Pocket Universe as their jailer.

So between the very real worry that somehow they would escape, and the sheer scope of their horrific crimes, it is understandable that Superman felt he had no choice but to execute Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora.  And it’s made very clear that this is not a decision that Superman makes lightly. He is troubled by it right from the start.  Returning to his dimension, Superman leaves the gravely injured Supergirl in the care of his parents, the Kents.  And, as can be seen from the final page of the issue (see below) they can immediately sense that something is very wrong with their adopted son.  So “The Price” ends on a very melancholy, introspective note.

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Regarding this three part story, some readers have subsequently criticized John Byrne for A) writing the character into an impossible corner where he would have no choice to kill and B) immediately departing from the Superman titles, leaving it up to others to pick up the pieces.  On the first point, in Byrne’s defense, I would argue that sometimes, in the real world, you do have literal no-win situations such as the one in issue #22.  Yes, writers of fiction can, and typically do, include convenient escape clauses that allow their protagonists to find a way out of a seemingly irrevocable moral dilemma.  But, y’know, once it a while it is interesting and refreshing to see a writer push the boundaries, not give the hero a convenient “out” and watch what happens when the $#!+ really hits the fan.

And that brings me to the second point.  I really do not know how abrupt Byrne’s departure was from Superman.  But as Jerry Ordway relates in the Modern Masters volume covering his career, he and Byrne had been working pretty closely together for some time to plot out the direction of the Superman books.  They had concrete plans to show the serious, long-lasting effects of Superman’s actions in the Pocket Universe.  The whole subplot of Clark Kent having a nervous breakdown and taking on the Gangbuster identity originated with Byrne and Ordway.  After Byrne departed, Ordway carried it forward with new writer Roger Stern.  And that, in turn, led to Superman’s decision to temporarily exile himself from Earth.

The point is, yes, I do think that a character like Superman should willing to use lethal force, but only where there is absolutely no other option available.  I certainly do not want to see him making a habit of killing bad guys!  Written properly, Superman will attempt all other possible alternatives to resolving a conflict before resorting to killing a foe.  If he does have to take a life, it should be seen to weigh heavily on him.  And when a writer has him make that decision, it should be in the service of the telling of a really interesting, thought-provoking story, rather than just for the purpose of generating gratuitous bloodshed!

Of course, your mileage may vary.  No doubt there are some who will completely disagree with me on this.  Indeed, a quarter century later, Superman #22 still remains a very controversial issue.  Looking at this, one can certainly infer that the character of Superman is such an icon, and has come to mean so much to so many, that a story such as “The Price” continues to inspire such passionate debate.