Comics Review: ‘Heroes in Crisis’ #1

Tragedy strikes the DCU…

Heroes in Crisis #1

Clay Mann’s powerful and evocative cover art for ‘Heroes in Crisis’ #1 (image credit: DC, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Written by:  Tom King / art by:  Clay Mann / colours by:  Tomeu Morey

What’s it about?

“I’m Just Warming Up” : discovering that several of their fellow heroes have been murdered, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman must uncover the mystery surrounding the circumstances…

In review

Eisner Award winning writer Tom King (critically acclaimed scribe of DC’s Batman and Mister Miracle) teams up with artist Clay Mann for the highly anticipated nine-issue series Heroes in Crisis, which launches with a harrowing and emotionally charged opening chapter that shocks and surprises in equal measure.  Numerous crises have befallen the DC universe over the course of its long history but this one is more personal as opposed to cosmic.

Heroes in Crisis introduces us to Sanctuary – a safe and secure place set-up by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman where superheroes, unnerved by the rigours of the job, can seek refuge and recovery.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that darkness has fallen as the Trinity race to Sanctuary to face a terrible horror…someone has turned the safe haven into a blood bath of tragedy that will have dire repercussions for the entire community.  Addressing the heart-breaking wave of shootings in America and tapping into his own experiences as a former C.I.A. operative, King infuses Heroes in Crisis with social relevance and an overdue commentary on the state of our world that makes for a stark but compelling read.  It’s quite clear that the core of this story concerns PTSD and King delivers necessary gut-punches of emotion throughout this first issue, which is sure to carry on into the rest of the series.

As readers of Batman will recognise, King employs an inventive narrative structure splitting the book between the perspective of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman as they rush to the scene of the crime, confessional style flashbacks (utilising the iconic Watchmen style nine-panel grids) and a brutal encounter between Harley Quinn and Booster Gold, who are the main focus of this instalment.  King has a great handle on Harley, highlighting the zany humour and unhinged danger of the Joker’s old partner and continues the work he did on Batman to redefine Booster Gold beyond his more beaming and egotistic persona to create an iteration of the character that’s actually interesting.

The art by Clay Mann (who has previously worked with Tom King on Batman) in a word is simply incredible.  Mann’s figures are strong and heroic (his Superman is a particular standout) and his storytelling is cinematic on a variety of scales but proves most skilful in depicting the intimacy of the drama with detailed facial work, expressing every emotional nuance, vocal or not, that the characters experience.  It’s all rendered beautifully with the aid of Tomeu Morey’s organic colours.

So, does all this mean dark times for the DCU, then?  That remains to be seen but it’s probably unlikely in the long run, DC’s Rebirth has been celebrated for its optimism and hopefully Heroes in Crisis will have a resolution that reminds us that there will always, eventually, be light at the end of the tunnel.

The bottom line:  A strong and gripping start, Heroes in Crisis promises to be an important series and couldn’t be in better creative hands.

Heroes in Crisis #1 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Comics Review: ‘Batman: Damned’ Book One

DC launches its Black Label with a startling new take on the Batman…

Batman Damned #1

Darker than night: Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo reunite for ‘Batman: Damned’, from DC’s Black Label (image credit: DC, used for illsutrative purposes only).

Written by:  Brian Azzarello / art by:  Lee Bermejo

What’s it about?

Discovering that the Joker is dead, an amnesiac Batman recruits John Constantine as he searches for the truth…

In review

The first release from DC’s adult-orientated ‘Black Label’ imprint, Book One of Batman: Damned is the first instalment of a three book Prestige Format series (released on a bi-monthly schedule) that reunites the writer and artist team of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, who previously worked together on the fan favourite villain-focused stories Joker and Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, of which this title is said to be a ‘spiritual successor’.

A standalone story set outside regular DC Universe continuity, Damned is a bleak, stark and visceral tale that’s not for the timid.  Against the backdrop of the grimy, decaying streets of a hellish Gotham City, Azzarello and Bermejo present a Batman who is the darkest of Dark Knights, a vigilante persona driven by a man whose emotional scars cut deep.  Its narrative carried by the narration of John Constantine, Azzarello’s script has a poetic, literary quality to it that elevates Damned above the average superhero comic.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Tom King’s Batman, this is just a different kind of approach that fully earns its ‘mature readers’ label via it’s grittier than gritty tone and startling, stylish visuals.

Damned opens with an injured Batman, dazed and confused as he learns that the Joker is dead and is unable to recall the events that have lead him onto an ambulance stretcher.  Making a brutal escape from the clutches of medics and the police, the Dark Knight Detective flees like a wounded animal and ultimately crosses paths with John Constantine who may be the only one who can help him piece things together.

Damned paints a Gotham City that truly is a Gothic nightmare and gives readers a Bruce Wayne who’s trauma runs deeper and more hopelessly than in the regular iteration and flashbacks to Wayne’s less than perfect childhood adds texture to an established origin and Brian Azzarello’s writing really provides a tangible sense of his pain.  The inclusion of Constantine, together with fresh takes on Zatanna, Deadman and the Enchantress, thickens the black, wintry atmosphere of the story with a strong dose of the supernatural which only increases its appeal.

The true power of Damned though lies in the haunting art of Lee Bermejo, rich with detail and vast in its storytelling this is one visually incredible comic book (it somehow feels like disservice to even call this a comic book) and it’d be a fair argument to say that Bermejo’s talents exceed Azzarello’s here and could carry the story with a minimum of dialogue – as good as it can be, Constantine’s narration does become a little too heavy and overbearing by the end of this fifty page opening chapter.  But that’s one miniscule criticism and in the grand scheme of things, Batman: Damned looks set to be a special story in the Batman mythos.

The bottom line:  In its first book, Batman: Damned shows great promise with a visually arresting and narratively gripping story that offers an alternative take on an iconic character.

Batman: Damned Book One is published by DC Black Label and is available in print and digital formats now.

Film Review: ‘The Predator’

Shane Black takes the reigns for the newest addition to the ‘Predator’ franchise…


The Predator

One of cinema’s most lethal creations returns in ‘The Predator’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane

Directed by:  Shane Black / written by:  Shane Black & Fred Dekker/ 107 minutes

What’s it about?

The crash-landing of an alien spacecraft leads to a fight for survival as a rag-tag group of ex-military personnel find themselves being hunted by a dangerous and lethal extra-terrestrial…

In review

Along with the Alien and Terminator series, Predator is another franchise that refuses to die despite diminishing returns.  Having said that, Predator 2 and Predators are actually pretty good so far as sequels go but a pair of underwhelming Alien vs Predator films sullies the overall quality.

Enlisting Iron Man Three director Shane Black to helm a new Predator instalment would surely give it instant potential, then?  Sadly, The Predator proves more of a low point for the franchise than a triumphant return, a promising set-up and an interesting creative approach let down by a weak script and messy final act.

Boyd Holbrook (Logan) and Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) are capable leads, the former as sniper Quinn McKenna – bringing the requisite dose of gruff alpha male – and the latter, convincingly, as biologist Dr. Casey Brackett.  Joining them is a group of kooky military misfits, amongst them Thomas Jane’s Tourette’s-inflicted Baxley, the endlessly profane Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) and the surprisingly stable ‘Nebraska’ Williams (Trevante Rhodes).  Adding a touch of villainy is Black Panther’s Sterling K. Brown as Traeger, an oddly comical government agent with special interest in the mysterious Predators.

By giving us a set of oddball characters, The Predator seeks to draw the audience in and have viewers become emotionally invested and to a degree it works, proving most effective with an endearing performance by Jacob Tremblay as McKenna’s autistic son, Rory, who may hold the key to defeating their enemy.

There’s some misjudged (though perhaps necessary at this point) attempts to broaden the mythology of the Predators themselves which some may be receptive to and others may not as it removes some of the mystique surrounding the iconic alien hunters.  Disappointingly, the ‘Super’ Predator seen in the pre-release trailers is nothing more than an oversized version of the original creature, although it does raise the stakes as the film progresses toward its denouement.

Making full use of its ‘R’ rating (certified ’15’ in the U.K.), The Predator is fairly bloody at times and its language littered with profanity which fans of the franchise would rightly expect.  The film’s action is satisfying in places but, bar one or two moments, there’s a lack of tension – especially during the rushed finale that feels generic, choppy and uninventive.

It all feels like a bit of a missed opportunity and a genuine shame given Black’s history with the franchise, having played the part of Hawkins in the classic 1987 original as well as providing uncredited contributions to the script.  The screenplay for The Predator, co-written by Black with Fred Dekker (RoboCop 3) is a little clichéd, with some embarrassing and dumb dialogue and an overreliance on humour – some of which provide genuine laughs but too much of which feels stilted.

The direction is fairly competent and it’s commendable that a slightly different approach for The Predator was sought, but ultimately the fusion of action, horror and humour doesn’t quite gel as successfully as it could have with stronger writing and better editing.  As a result, The Predator is best watched more as a straight forward, slightly cheap action horror flick than a notable and essential continuation of the franchise.

The bottom line:  A flawed sequel to a beloved classic, there’s some fun to be had with The Predator but its creative potential is squandered by some weak execution.

The Predator is in cinemas now.

TV Review: ‘Iron Fist’ – Season 2 Premiere

It’s time for round 2 with the new season of Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’…

Iron Fist 2-01

Finn Jones returns for season 2 of Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’ (image credit: Marvel/Netflix, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, Jessica Stroup, Tom Pelphry, Sacha Dhawan, Alice Eve

Series created by:  Scott Buck (Iron Fist created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane)

Written by:  M. Raven Metzner / episode directed by:  David Dobkin

What’s it about?

As criminal gangs disrupt the peace in New York, Danny Rand is faced with an old acquaintance and a possible threat to his standing as the Immortal Iron Fist…

Episode review

After a first season that was met with a fairly lukewarm reception, Marvel’s Iron Fist returns for a second go.  Following the events of The Defenders and season 2 of Luke Cage, “The Fury of Iron Fist” finds Danny Rand choosing to live a simpler life, leaving the day-to-day business of Rand Enterprises to those who are more interested in corporate affairs.  More at ease with his role as the Immortal Iron Fist, Danny continues to use his abilities to defend the innocent and uphold Matt Murdock’s plea to keep New York safe.  Colleen too, chooses to lead a more moral and purposeful existence as she helps out at a local community centre.  However, with the rise of gang warfare and the return of Davos, any peace that Danny and Colleen have established could be about to be unravelled.

Season 1 of Iron Fist was not anywhere near as bad as most would lead you to believe, whilst the story may have felt a little stretched and the focus on corporate drama a little generic and unsatisfying it still had its moments with an intriguing if familiar origin story.  With The Defenders, there was some positive growth in the character of Danny Rand with better writing and a more confident and assured performance from Finn Jones (and Jones’ cameo in season 2 of Luke Cage was a highlight).  This continues here as the series gains a new showrunner and a desire to make a fresh start.

“The Fury of Iron Fist” is very much an opening chapter with a fairly slow beginning that’s mostly set-up and puts the pieces in place whilst familiarising viewers with the world and characters of Iron Fist.  There’s some action sprinkled in, with slick and well-choreographed fight scenes that pack a more brutal punch than what we’ve seen previously in this series.  Finn Jones and Jessica Henwick are both solid and there’s great chemistry between them and are assuredly the heart and soul of the series.

The return of Davos adds a thick layer of tension as he feels Danny is avoiding his truer responsibilities as the champion protector of K’un Lun.  There’s still a bit of generic soap drama with Ward and Joy but it may turn out more interesting this time around – especially in regards to Joy, seen as she’s in cohorts with Davos.

The most intriguing aspect though is the introduction of Alice Eve as Mary, a character who seems sweet but has something strange and unsettling going on behind closed doors.  If you’re a Marvel Comics reader then you’ll pretty much know what is going in and it’ll be interesting to see how things unfold.

With the main players established, the story foundations in place and a tighter run of ten episodes that may be of benefit, season 2 of Iron Fist has potential.

The bottom line:  the new season of Iron Fist gets off to a slow but promising start that may placate criticisms of the first season.

All 10 episodes of Iron Fist season 2 are available to stream now via Netflix.

Comics Review: ‘Planet of the Apes: Visionaries’

Rod Serling’s original ‘Planet of the Apes’ screenplay comes to life in a new graphic novel…

Planet of the Apes Visionaries

Cover art for ‘Planet of the Apes: Visionaries’ by Paolo Rivera (image credit: Boom! Studios/20th Century Fox, used for illustrative purpose only).

Written by:  Rod Serling (adapted by Dana Gould) / art by:  Chad Lewis / inks by:  David Wilson / colours by:  Darrin Moore, Miquel Muerto & Marcelo Costa

What’s it about?

A crew of astronauts find themselves stranded on a strange world where intelligent apes are dominant…

In review

In celebration of fifty years of Planet of the Apes, Boom! Studios present an original graphic novel that brings The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s original screenplay of Pierre Boulle’s novel to life.  Adapted by writer/comedian Dana Gould (whose writing credits include The Simpsons and Stan Against Evil) with art by Chad Lewis, Planet of the Apes: Visionaries is an interesting reinterpretation of what eventually became the first Planet of the Apes feature film.  On first thought, Gould may seem like an odd choice for such a project but given his professed love for Planet of the Apes and The Twilight Zone then it soon becomes clear that he’s perfect for the job.

As is well documented, Rod Serling’s screenplay for Planet of the Apes was rewritten by Michael Wilson in order to accommodate budgetary limitations but it’s evident here that an awful lot of Serling’s work was retained for the film and was simply retooled to fit a more modest production and entertain the masses.  The main differences are visual, given that Serling adhered closely to Pierre Boulle’s vision of a modern, industrialised ape society.  In place of horses there are motor vehicles (and helicopters) and instead of primitive stone huts there are skyscrapers, film theatres and nightclubs.  Reminding us that these are in fact apes, whilst adding a touch of the zany, is the sight of citizens swinging across the streets using monkey bars!  Like Boulle’s novel, the dialogue is a little more academic and in true Serling style accentuates the satirical and social elements, giving the story a slightly darker and more philosophical slant.

Another significant departure is the leading protagonist, named Thomas, who though sharing some similarities to Charlton Heston’s Taylor is largely a different character.  Taylor’s gruff heroism and misanthropic outlook was a perfect fit for Heston as an actor and screen presence (and Planet of the Apes would not have worked so well without him at the centre) but the ‘hero’ of Serling’s take on Boulle’s story is of a more scientific and anthropological disposition.

All of that doesn’t necessarily make this version of Planet of the Apes superior to the screen version, just a fascinating alternative.  The less technologically developed simian culture of the 1968 film is actually to its benefit, providing a primal feel and otherworldliness that make the final outcome all the more shocking and Charlton Heston’s performance unforgettable.

The interior art by Chad Lewis (inked by David Wilson) is appropriate with a loose, rough and slightly cartoonish style that together with muted, dreamy colours (provided by Darrin Moore, Miquel Muerto & Marcelo Costa) helps to evoke a pulpy, retro sci-fi feel with the ape character design more animalistic and simian-like in a way that could not have achieved with actors in make-up and prosthetics.  It’s fair to say that in the hands of previous Boom! Apes artist Carlos Magno Visionaries could have actually been even better, but it may have ultimately changed the tone and visual uniqueness of this particular iteration.

Aside from the story itself, Planet of the Apes: Visionaries contains closing thoughts from Dana Gould and Chad Lewis (backed up by some nice concept sketches) discussing various aspects of Rod Serling’s vision and their approach to faithfully interpreting and respecting his work.  They’re fascinating to read and Gould’s passion for the Apes franchise and his adoration of Rod Serling is particularly enlightening.

Boom! Have done great work with the Apes license and have produced some brilliant stories that have expanded and embellished the Planet of the Apes universe and Visionaries is no different, whilst the uninitiated may find it odd it’s well worth a look for Apes fans.

The bottom line:  Planet of the Apes: Visionaries provides an intriguing look at what might have been and a fitting tribute to fifty years of an iconic and beloved franchise.

Planet of the Apes: Visionaries is published by Boom! Studios and is available in print and digital formats now.

It’s a Classic: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995)

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Just a whisper.  I hear it in my ghost”

Ghost in the Shell 95

‘Ghost in the Shell’ – a true anime classic (image credit: Kodansha/Bandai Visual/Manga Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).


Year:  1995

Starring (voices – original Japanese cast):  Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Tamio Ohki, Iemasa Kayumi

Director:  Mamoru Oshii / Written by:  Kazunori Ito

What’s it about?

In a future where technology and humanity have become intertwined and cyberterrorism runs rampant, counter-operative Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team investigate a new threat that emerges from cyberspace…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Based on the manga by Shirow Masamune, director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is an essential classic of the genre and a standout piece of science fiction cinema that fuses elements of RoboCop and Blade Runner (and in turn becoming influential itself – The Matrix trilogy being a good example) with an enigmatic and cerebral tale of humanity’s inseparable relationship with technology.

Taking place in the year 2029, where technology has advanced to a point that the human brain – and one’s essence, or ‘ghost’ with it – can be transplanted into an artificial body, Ghost in the Shell is a futuristic ‘cyberpunk’ thriller that focuses on Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg and lead operative of the counter-cyberterrorism organisation known as Public Security Section 9 (her teammates comprising loyal right-hand, Batou) who become tasked with investigating the appearance of a suspected super-hacker going by the name of ‘Puppet Master’.  As the case unfolds and with the discovery that the Puppet Master is actually a sentient form of Artificial Intelligence, Kusanagi begins to question the meaning of existence and whether this new form of life is a threat or a link in the next step of human evolution.

Like a lot of anime, Ghost in the Shell has a ponderous, existential quality to it (made all the more evocative by Kenji Kawai’s beautiful music score) with dense, philosophical dialogue that may make the film’s concepts difficult to grasp initially.  It’s best approached with an open mind and a willingness to simply surrender and be captivated by the mesmerising nature of Ghost in the Shell and the ideas it poses about the evolution of technology, human existence and the blurring of the line between the two.

Almost a quarter of a century on and the animation for Ghost in the Shell continues to astonish, the level of detail and craftsmanship produced with precision and great care.  Whilst there’s an awful lot that can be achieved today with CGI, it’s a reminder that this – now sadly underutilised – art form can yield equal, even superior results.  The characters are believable and realistic, the technology design intriguing and the cityscapes as intricate as they are expansive.  Complementing all this is the fluid and visceral action, which, though ultraviolent, is executed with energy and skill, providing numerous exciting moments (the highlight of which is undoubtedly the climactic battle between Kusanagi and a heavily armoured tank) that outshine some of the more overly noisy, endless world-crumbling set-pieces seen in various simple-minded popcorn blockbusters of today.

The success of Ghost in the Shell has resulted in a popular franchise that beyond manga and video games has spawned not only a sequel (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, released in 2004) but further iterations in television and original video animations (known as ‘OVA’) including the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series.  An inferior live action feature film starring Scarlett Johansson was also released last year.  Its themes becoming more relevant than ever, Ghost in the Shell is likely to endure and be revisited and reinterpreted for some time to come.

Standout moment

Intersected by the opening credits, we witness the ‘birth’ of the Major as her android body is created…or is it just a dream?

Geek fact!

The voice cast for the English language version of Ghost in the Shell includes Richard Epcar as Batou, who would go on to voice the character in both the sequel, Innocence and the Stand Alone Complex series.

If you like this then watch…

Akira : that ‘other’ cyberpunk classic that formed part of the western ‘Japanimation’ craze of the 1990s, Akira follows the rise of a dangerously powerful psychokinetic teenager amidst the biker-gang torn streets of post-World War III Japan.

Patlabor 2 : also directed by Mamoru Oshii, the second Patlabor film is a complex and politically charged tale in which a mecha police unit fight to uncover a conspiracy as Japan verges on civil war.