Have You Read… ‘Hulk: Gray’?

The comics and graphic novels you may not have read that are worth checking out… 

Hulk Gray (a)

Cover art for the original hardcover collected edition of Hulk: Gray by Tim Sale (image credit: Marvel Comics).

 

Written by:  Jeph Loeb / art by:  Tim Sale (The Incredible Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

Seeking out an old friend, Dr. Bruce Banner recounts the first hours following his exposure to Gamma radiation – the very event which unleashed his raging alter-ego, aka the Incredible Hulk…

In review

Following their collaborations on Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale (the creative team who produced fan favourites Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman: For All Seasons for DC) reunited for another Marvel Comics limited series – Hulk: Gray, originally published in 2003/2004 as six single issues under the more mature and less creatively restricted Marvel Knights banner.

Hulk: Gray is a standalone story recounting a previously untold tale in the history of the Incredible Hulk, within the first 24 hours of Dr. Bruce Banner’s fateful exposure to Gamma radiation and his transformation into the raging gray – or “grey” – giant.  That’s right…as aficionados will likely be aware, the Hulk was originally coloured grey for his debut in 1963’s The Incredible Hulk #1 and was subsequently recoloured green due to issues with printing reproduction (although a grey version of the Hulk would later feature in Peter David’s popular run on the title).  But aside from honouring this aspect of the character’s origin, the title Gray has more of a thematic meaning as it ponders the shadier middle moral ground between black and white.  It also explores the Frankenstein parallels that have often been linked to the character – something that was there from that very first classic issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  The story is presented in a straightforward manner, weaving its ideas neatly into the narrative.

Hulk: Gray opens as a forever on-the-run Bruce Banner, mourning the death of his late beloved wife, Betty (nee Ross), on the night of their wedding anniversary, takes a brief pause to seek the counsel of an old friend, psychotherapist Dr. Leonard Samson.  Tired of being pursued and eternally haunted by his beastly alter-ego, Banner bares his soul to Samson as he recalls his earliest moments as the Hulk and how the only true salvation in his life was Betty.  Yet, as we learn, Betty’s initial encounter with the Hulk is not exactly a sympathetic one and adds to Banner’s heartbreak in the face of an inevitably irreversible change in his life.

As well as Banner’s relationship with Betty, Hulk: Gray also looks at the conflict the Hulk’s appearance incites with the U.S. Military as Betty’s father, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross begins his relentless campaign to hunt down the creature.  What’s interesting is that Gray really conveys the sense that Ross, with his traditional air of “might makes right” (again in-line with how he was originally conceived by Lee and Kirby), is equally as raging and destructive as the Hulk, the difference being that his actions are deemed lawful and sanctioned by the U.S. government.  He may be more in control and less unpredictable than the almost mindless (or more child-like) Hulk, but the maniacal, near-psychotic Ross faithfully depicted here is proven to be just as dangerous with the resources – the “might” – at his command.

There’s still an element of hope in the story as the Hulk is not totally alone and has one person he can call “friend” (notwithstanding an unfortunately brief meeting with a desert-roaming bunny rabbit) – teenager Rick Jones, whom Banner had saved from the fallout of the Gamma Bomb test.  Gray highlights the ever-important friendship between Banner/Hulk and Rick and touches upon the burden of guilt that Rick carries as he blames himself for Banner being caught in the blast that leads to his ‘condition’.  Despite his troubles, Banner doesn’t hold his new young friend responsible and both as man and beast finds, at this point, his only trusted ally.  It underpins Banner’s inherent sense of morality and benevolence that prevents the Hulk from becoming a force of evil without removing the element of danger that accompanies an unrestrained and primal creature.

Throughout its six chapters, Gray serves up a pleasing dose of Hulk-Smash! entertainment and facilitates a secret, undocumented pre-Avengers confrontation between the formidable grey behemoth and Tony Stark’s Iron Man (with his classic early 60s bulky, golden tin-man appearance).  The desert-bound battle between the two future allies is a standout moment with Stark quickly realising that he’s bitten off more than he can chew as he’s beaten and tossed around by the Hulk.  Despite the technology at his disposal, Stark is unable to counter the threat that he and the U.S. Military have, perhaps unwittingly, provoked.

With the opening and closing of Gray taking place in the present, most of the story is told via Banner and Banner/Samson’s conversation, threaded throughout and serving as a narration.  Jeph Loeb’s entertaining script grapples onto the thematic concepts to present a poignant and thought-provoking tale of a man and a simple-minded and powerful but misunderstood monster, examining the dichotomy between the two personas and Banner’s startling revelation of why he really believes Betty loved him and stood by him for so long.

Tim Sale’s art is great and makes for a suitable accompaniment to Loeb’s script, with a classic, cartoon style that is reverential to – but exaggerates – Jack Kirby’s original visual design and which was also influenced by celebrated Hulk artist Marie Severin and her parody take on the character, ‘The Inedible Bulk’ (appearing in Marvel’s superhero spoof comic Not Brand Echh).  The use of colouring and shading is simple and effective (the black and white bookending sequences between Banner and Samson adds a touch of noir that also accentuates the central ‘grey area’ concept), creating a strong sense of atmosphere and the use of grey ink wash for the Hulk himself provides a subtle highlight that helps the iconic character standout on the page.  Whilst Sale’s style wouldn’t necessarily work as successfully in regular issues of The Incredible Hulk, the art he produces for Hulk: Gray is befitting of the pulpier approach taken by a story rooted in atomic age sci-fi.

Lovingly executed by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Hulk: Gray is a salute and homage to those early tales of the Incredible Hulk crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, simply told whilst broadening the depth of a decades-old Marvel Comics icon and reiterating the core elements that make the character most appealing.

Geek fact!

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale would team up once again in 2008 for a further ‘colour’ Marvel hero limited series – Captain America: White in which Steve Rogers recounts a special mission during World War II.

Hulk: Gray is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’

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

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce”

Batman - MotP Batman

Batman faces a new threat to Gotham City in ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Year:  1993

Starring the voices of:  Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Mark Hamill

Directed by:  Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm / written by:  Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko & Michael Reaves (story by Alan Burnett)

What’s it about?

Wrongly accused of the murders of several Gotham mobsters, Batman investigates the appearance of a reaper-like figure…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Spinning off from the immensely popular Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an exciting, fun and emotionally resonant adventure for the Dark Knight that provides a fresh and compelling insight into the origins of Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego, the heartbreak of a lost chance for happiness and the enduring tragedy of the murder of his parents.

Enlisting the voice artists of Batman: The Animated Series with a script (the plot inspired by Mike W. Barr’s Batman: Year Two comics storyline) written by regular writers of the series and directed by creators Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (originally intended as a straight to video release but ultimately receiving a theatrical release during Christmas of 1993) sees Bruce Wayne reconnect with the love of his past, Andrea Beaumont, who returns to Gotham City after disappearing some years prior.  It evokes bittersweet memories for Bruce who is still trying to understand why Andrea left so abruptly just as the pair planned to marry.

Batman - MotP Phantasm

The mysterious Phantasm (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Flashbacks facilitate a glimpse into Bruce’s earlier days in his career as a vigilante but also shows a brief point in that period when he considers a happier and more hopeful path that would see him unburdened by his vow to avenge his parents’ murders and keep Gotham safe.  Meanwhile, in the present, Bruce continues his war against crime and as the Batman, investigates the deaths of some of Gotham’s top mob bosses for which the Dark Knight is wrongly accused and must uncover the identity of the real perpetrator – a mysterious cloaked reaper-like figure who stalks the city at night.  In order to tackle this new threat, Bruce must face unexpected revelations from the past and how it relates to Andrea and her father, a financier entangled in the affairs of crime lord Salvatore Valestra.

Kevin Conroy is the definitive voice artist for the lead role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, bringing a vulnerability and humanity to the former and skilfully infusing the latter with the right amount of intensity and confidence.  Dana Delany is sublimely cast as Andrea with an appropriately strong and heartfelt performance that enhances the love story element of the film.  Filling out the cast is Efrem Zimbalist Jr. who brings his warm, dutiful tones to the role of Alfred (the familial bond between Bruce and his faithful butler is an obvious highlight), Bob Hastings as Jim Gordon, Gotham’s tireless Police Commissioner, Hart Bochner as corrupt City Councilman Arthur Reeves, Stacy Keach as Andrea’s father, Carl, Abe Vigoda as Valestra and Robert Constanza as Detective Harvey Bullock.

Batman - MotP Joker

The incomparable Mark Hamill returns to voice the Joker (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Naturally, any Batman story is made all the greater when it features the Joker and thankfully Mark Hamill reprises the role for Mask of the Phantasm.  Like Kevin Conroy, Hamill is perfect casting and he engages with the part passionately, bringing, assuredly, all the expected maniacal, deranged and playful qualities that define the Dark Knight’s greatest adversary.  The script ensures that the Clown Prince of Crime’s inclusion has important ties to the narrative so as not to simply throw the ever-popular comic villain into the mix merely for the sake of it – leading to a climactic showdown between Batman, the Joker and the Phantasm at the derelict remains of Gotham’s The World of the Future Fair.

Unfortunately, there’s no place for Dick Grayson/Robin in the story but this is very much a Bruce/Batman-focused narrative so whilst the inclusion of Loren Lester may have been welcome, it makes sense not to just shoehorn Robin into the plot – and there’s always the excellent “Robin’s Reckoning” two-parter from TAS.

The animation and design of Mask of the Phantasm is iconic, evoking the dark, retro-modern and gothic style of the series that displays influences of Tim Burton’s Batman.  The character designs are classic and strike the perfect balance between realism and caricature and the visuals flow beautifully with some great action scenes that are deftly executed under the guidance of co-directors Radomski and Timm.  Completing the package is Shirley Walker’s wonderfully atmospheric score which builds on the exemplary work she produced for Batman: TAS.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is essential viewing for older and newer fans alike and stands proudly alongside Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as a classic screen iteration of a beloved comic book character.

Standout moment

In the darkened caves deep below Wayne Manor, Alfred stands aghast as Bruce emerges from the shadows, donning for the first time the cape and cowl of the Batman…

Geek fact!

Impressing the producers with her work on Mask of the Phantasm, Dana Delany would be cast as the voice of Lois Lane for Superman: The Animated Series.

If you like this then check out…

Batman (1989) : perhaps the defining big screen presentation of the Dark Knight (at least for a particular generation) Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy approach to the source material provided a clear reference point for the makers of Batman: The Animated Series.

Comic Review: ‘Justice League’ #40

Writer Robert Venditti takes on DC’s premier superhero team… 

Justice League #40

Cover art by Bryan Hitch & Jeremiah Skipper (image credit: DC Comics).

Written by:  Robert Venditti / pencils by:  Doug Mahnke / inks by:  Richard Friend / colours by:  David Baron

What’s it about?

“Impact” Part 1 : crashing to Earth, ex-Green Lantern Corps member Sodam Yat delivers a stark warning of an incoming invasion to the Justice League, lead by an old foe of Superman’s…

In review

Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps and Hawkman writer Robert Venditti takes the reigns of DC’s leading team-up title Justice League as issue #40 presents a fresh start with the first chapter of a new story arc, “Impact”.  Venditti’s tenure follows a largely enjoyable run written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV and with Justice League #40, necessarily scales things back a little and neatly streamlines the superhero group’s roster to a core line-up of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and John Stewart’s Green Lantern.  It seems that Snyder’s close to issue #39 may not have been what readers may have expected – a cliffhanger of sorts (that in hindsight maybe wasn’t?) – as it isn’t addressed by Venditti who instead favours a clean break whilst acknowledging recent events in the wider DC Universe, such as Superman’s reveal of his true identity to the world (in last December’s Superman #18 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ivan Reis).  After the mind-bending plethora of ideas infused into the book by Messrs Snyder and Tynion it’s an appropriate reset that allows ongoing readers to re-orientate themselves and provide an access point for new fans to jump onboard – and it generally works (there is of course a lot going on in the DC canon of late), making for a solid first issue for the new Justice League writer.

Robert Venditti builds an entertaining and appealing opening instalment of “Impact”, quickly demonstrating his knowledge of the DCU and the characters he utilises for Justice League – with an effective grasp of the familiar dynamics between the various heroes (the conflicted but brotherly Batman/Superman interplay providing some small but key moments).  It may be quite a wordy narrative, and a great deal of the issue is merely setting the stage, but there’s still a decent helping of action to accompany the drama, tension and the high stakes (dialling things back to the more manageable and comprehensive playing field of a single universe) established, wasting no time in introducing a new threat for the League to face: the return of the Eradicator – the cold and ruthless Superman clone who debuted during “Reign of the Supermen” in the 1990s.  Receiving warning from former Green Lantern, Daxam’s Sodam Yat, who crashes to Earth, the Justice League learns the news that the Eradicator has engineered an army of Daxamites free from their Kryptonian vulnerabilities and plans to decimate the planet, beginning a campaign of conquest across the universe.  The Eradicator can often be overlooked and perhaps underrated as a Superman villain and Venditti affirms that in the right hands he can be a powerful (both literally and figuratively) antagonist, without violating the known traits of the character and is bound to provide a significant challenge for our heroes to unite against.

The art by penciller Doug Mahnke (with inks by Richard Friend and colours by David Baron) is very good and although there are some rough and sketchy spots here and there, it’s a great looking comic that’s visually epic and exciting in all the right instances with the more confined, character-focused scenes being equally well-defined and together with Venditti’s script it all keeps the reader engaged and provides plenty of anticipation for what’s to come.

The bottom line:  Robert Venditti takes up writing duties on Justice League and with penciller Doug Mahnke delivers a solid first chapter of a new story arc that promises high stakes for DC’s core heroes.

Justice League #40 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Comic Review: ‘Batman’ #86

A new era dawns for the Dark Knight…

Batman #86

Cover art by Tony S. Daniel, Danny Miki & Tomeu Morey (image credit: DC Comics).

Written by:  James Tynion IV / pencils by:  Tony S. Daniel and Guillem March (epilogue) / inks by:  Danny Miki / colours by:  Tomeu Morey

What’s it about?

“Their Dark Designs” Part 1 : in the aftermath of Bane’s decimation, Bruce Wayne plans to help Gotham City rebuild but a new threat builds as his continuing mission as Batman brings him into a confrontation with the lethal assassin, and old foe, Deathstroke…

In review

Following Tom King’s epic (but divisive in some areas of fandom) near four-year run on DC’s leading title, former Detective Comics writer James Tynion IV is handed the keys to Wayne Manor (after a brief prologue that featured in #85) as he takes over the reins on Batman with penciller Tony S. Daniel with issue #86 – an ideal jumping on point for lapsed and new readers alike.

Batman #86 picks up in the wake of “City of Bane”, Tom King’s final arc on the comic which concluded in the previous issue.  It’s not necessary to have followed that story as James Tynion IV takes care to cover the essentials neatly and without an overload of convoluted exposition.  In the aftermath of Bane’s rule over Gotham City, a reflective Bruce Wayne begins picking up the pieces as he continues his war on crime as the Batman.  The difference this time is that Bruce sees an opportunity to not only help rebuild Gotham but to reform it as well, something that he feels can be achieved by both Bruce Wayne and Batman – with a little help from Selina Kyle and Lucius Fox.  However, it isn’t going to be easy and a confrontation with Deathstroke leads to a new threat for Gotham and its protector.

Tynion hits the ground running with his first full issue, it may lack the more poetic and existential quality that Tom King brought to the book, favouring a more action-orientated approach, but nor does it reinvent the wheel and there’s certainly a philosophical element to the story as Bruce Wayne contemplates the future of Batman and the possibility that if his plans for Gotham succeed there’ll no longer be a need for him.  Tynion carved a standout run on Detective Comics at the inset of DC’s Rebirth initiative and continues to demonstrate his talents at world-building and writing character, although, naturally he ensures that Bruce/Batman (whereas his work on Detective Comics was generally more focused on the extended Bat-family) are front and centre whilst providing significant roles for both Selina (their renewed romance no doubt to be given greater attention in Tom King’s forthcoming Batman/Catwoman maxi-series) and Lucius – who has some fun interactions with Batman as a formidable new addition to the Dark Knight’s arsenal is teased.

Tony S. Daniel returns to the pages of Batman as a regular artist after sporadic collaborations during Tom King’s run.  A veteran Batman artist and writer himself, Daniel provides bold and dynamic visuals – complemented by Danny Miki’s inks and Tomeu Morey’s colours – that are an ideal match for Tynion’s writing and make the duo a great pairing.  Daniel maintains the grand and cinematic scope expected of the premiere Bat-book and is especially effective in rendering the pacey action scenes, the energetic and brutal encounter with Deathstroke being the obvious highlight.

A promising start, Batman #86 closes with a short epilogue that continues building on the threads of that inaugural mini chapter in #85, with Guillem March on the art.  March’s work is in a pleasingly not-too-dissimilar style to Tony Daniel and there’s a further sense of continuity and consistency thanks to Tomeu Morey once again providing colours.

The bottom line:  James Tynion IV, joined by pencillers Tony S. Daniel and Guillem March, delivers a solid and engaging beginning as a new and promising run on DC’s Batman commences.

Batman #86 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘ Batman Returns’

The summer of 1992 saw Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight faced with two iconic foes in Tim Burton’s second (and final) Batman film…

Batman Returns a

The superb Michael Keaton dons the cape and cowl once more in ‘Batman Returns’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1992

Starring:  Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

Directed by:  Tim Burton / written by:  Daniel Waters (story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm)

What’s it about?

Batman faces a new challenge when a corrupt businessman plots with the villainous Penguin to seize control of Gotham City, with matters further complicated by the appearance of the mysterious ‘Catwoman’…

Retrospective/review

Given the blockbuster success of Batman in the summer of 1989, Warner Bros. Pictures were naturally keen on producing a sequel.  Released in June of 1992, Batman Returns, whilst not as good as its landmark predecessor (although for some the reverse applies) easily qualifies as a strong second outing for Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight.  Although there’s slightly less focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman Returns is still very much a Batman film lovingly produced through the dark gothic imaginings of Tim Burton.  It’s clear that Burton was given more creative freedom as Batman Returns has even more of an idiosyncratic and fantastical touch that makes it unmistakably a Tim Burton film, but still feels appropriate for a major Batman feature born in the era of seminal comics works The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and would also serve to inspire the exemplary Batman: The Animated Series.

Having formerly taken on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns doubles the jeopardy with two main antagonists – the Penguin and Catwoman, who are reinvented for this iteration.  Danny DeVito lives and breathes the role of Oswald Cobblepot – otherwise known as ‘the Penguin’ – his podgy, diminutive build, pointed nose and flipper-like hands giving him somewhat of a grotesque and literally penguin-like appearance, effectively evoked via the brilliant make-up design.  Much like the ‘monsters’ of the classic Universal horrors, his villainy is driven by tragedy – specifically, abandonment by his parents as an infant – and a desire for acceptance.  Michelle Pfeiffer is a similar revelation as Selina Kyle, starting out as the meek underdog before the fateful incident that leads to her ‘rebirth’ as the sultry and formidable Catwoman who, like Bruce Wayne, finds herself grappling with dual personas.

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The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) provide double the trouble for Batman (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Colluding with DeVito’s Penguin is the excellent Christopher Walken (who previously proved his worth as a villain in James Bond outing A View to a Kill) as devious Gotham businessman Max Schreck – named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlock in the classic German horror Nosferatu – who brings further weight to the threat Batman must face.  As for Michael Keaton he continues to impress, deftly straddling the line between his two identities bringing emotional complexity to Bruce Wayne, aided greatly by the chemistry he shares with Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, whilst applying a confident measure of brooding and intensity once he dons the iconic cape and cowl of the Batman.

Batman Returns is a very atmospheric film (benefitting from another great Danny Elfman music score), the Christmas holiday setting and frequent snowfall adding a feeling of wintry crispness to the gothic chill evoked by Bo Welch’s wonderful sets which build upon Anton Furst’s Academy Award winning work on the previous film.  A gentle increase in humour provides an element of quirkiness and levity (especially in the exchanges between Bruce and Michael Gough’s Alfred) without undermining the darker and more dramatic themes of the story.  As with Batman, the stunts and choreography in the fight sequences are top-notch and coupled with superbly staged action set-pieces (bolstered by some deftly executed pyrotechnics) provide plenty of visual excitement.  It all makes for a fun and artfully crafted comic book blockbuster at a time when such a thing wasn’t so common.

Read the classics review of Batman (1989) right here.

Geek fact!

Batman Returns features an early screen appearance from Hellboy and Star Trek: Discovery star Doug Jones as one of Penguin’s circus clown goons.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Film Review: ‘Joker’

Joaquin Phoenix is the man beneath the clown make-up in Tod Phillip’s Scorsese inspired reinvention of DC’s iconic villain…

Joker (a)

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerful performance in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘Joker’ (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson

Directed by:  Todd Phillips / written by:  Todd Phillips & Scott Silver / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Grappling with mental illness amidst the crumbling society of Gotham City, a victimised and broken man walks a dark path as he adopts a deranged persona known as ‘Joker’…

In review

After riding a wave of festival focused critical plaudits and finding itself subject to some pre-release controversy (cancelled screenings and increased police presence rising from concerns that the film may incite acts of violence), Warner Bros. Pictures’ Joker, based on the iconic Batman villain, has landed in cinemas.  Featuring an intense and Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is much less a traditional “comic book” interpretation of DC’s Clown Prince of Crime and far more a bleak, at times disturbing and often unnerving character study of a man cast aside by society, broken and pushed to the limit and through violent means – pushes back.  As has already been suggested since the film’s inception, Joker finds its roots within the celebrated works of director Martin Scorsese (who at one point was attached to produce) – specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner struggling with mental illness and afflicted by a condition which leads to uncontrollable bouts of laughter (something that may sound silly on the surface but is realised painfully by a startlingly gaunt Phoenix).  Caring for his mother (played by Frances Conroy) and making a meagre living as a sign twirling street clown, Fleck looks to pursue a career in stand-up comedy…but one bad day too many sees the tragic figure consumed by his demons as he transforms himself into the deranged and homicidal persona of ‘Joker’.

Joker is certainly a good piece of filmmaking (captured beautifully by cinematographer Lawrence Sher) and in many ways compelling, unshackled from its comic book origins and unburdened by any requirement to connect to a wider universe, favouring it’s Scorsese inspirations – the character of Fleck very much informed by Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, perhaps more so than he is by the Joker as we’ve seen in previous iterations.  Director Todd Phillips (who also co-writes) takes these influences and runs with them, proving his capabilities beyond the crowd-pleasing comedy fare of The Hangover trilogy.  It does, admittedly, make it a tad derivative and adds an element of predictability to proceedings, but at least provides a viable approach to this reinterpretation of a classic comic book foe.  Joker also benefits further from a small but key role for acting legend Robert De Niro (as talk show host Murray Franklin, who Fleck idolises), who certainly brings a heap of gravitas to the project – yet, the film unmistakably thrives on Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal.

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Joaquin Phoenix as the haggard and troubled Arthur Fleck (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Despite some of its creative laudability, the film is not exactly “fun” in any sense, but nor does it aim to be given the themes it explores (the societal tensions and spiralling crime rate sadly all too relevant) and Fleck’s descent into madness can make for a difficult viewing experience.  Truth be told, Joker cannot match itself to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which was able to depict a satisfyingly dark and dangerous version of the Joker whilst offering some semblance of hope via Bruce Wayne’s war against crime.  It’s also arguable that the Joker is very much defined by his ‘relationship’ with Batman which makes the approach of Joker, although invigorating, ultimately lacks something without that counterbalance.

Joker does however maintain its links to the comics, the Wayne family playing an important role within the story and the (seemingly early 1980s) Gotham City setting, though a more grounded extrapolation of a crime-ridden New York of the 1970s, a familiar placing.  Fleck’s failure as a comedian is also, of course, an identifiable homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.

Joker leaves itself open to the interpretation of viewers and is likely to provoke fierce debates about not only the film itself but in its world-view and subjects it doesn’t take lightly – it may not be “entertaining” in a manner most would expect and the Joker is arguably better presented in his battles with the Batman but this is still a bold take on a particular, standalone, version of the character.

The bottom line:  ‘Dark’ in every sense of the word, Joker pulls no punches in its depiction of crime, violence and a society in decline, driven by Joaquin Phoenix’s powerful and mesmerising performance.

Joker is in cinemas now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Comic Review: ‘Batman/Superman’ #1

The greatest team-up in comics returns…

Batman Superman #1.jpg

Cover art by David Marquez (image credit: DC Comics).

 

Written by:  Joshua Williamson / art by:  David Marquez / colours by:  Alejandro Sanchez

What’s it about?

Batman and Superman unite to grapple with the deranged Dark Multiverse villain, the Batman Who Laughs as he transforms their comrades into ‘the Infected’, his horrifying horsemen…

In review

Spilling out of the pages of the recent The Batman Who Laughs mini-series (by writer/artist duo Scott Snyder and Jock), Joshua Williamson, current writer of DC’s The Flash, teams up with artist David Marquez (who previously worked on Marvel’s The Invincible Iron Man and Civil War II) for a new Batman/Superman series, a title that’s been sorely missing in the post-Rebirth era of the DC Universe.

Given that this first arc takes it’s lead from The Batman Who Laughs, pitting the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel against the terrifying schemes of the twisted Dark Multiverse Batman, Batman/Superman #1 has a more gothic, horror infused tone to it than previous Bat/Supes team-up books and although that may leave it ‘feeling’ more like a Batman comic in some respects, it’s immediately clear that Joshua Williamson is perfectly suited as writer of the series.  Williamson quickly proves adept at handling the big two of DC’s pantheon, ensuring the focus is equally split whilst demonstrating an understanding of the established (and expected) traits and qualities of each character and the dynamics of their relationship, given the differences in viewpoints.  Most of these explorations occur via the dual narration/monologues that run throughout the book, although this is nothing new in any iteration of Batman/Superman (or Superman/Batman as it was before the New 52), it is part of the creative make-up of the title and really gives the reader a feel for what motivates the heroes and reasoning as to why, despite their opposing views and methods in the pursuit of justice, Batman and Superman continue to be allies – and more importantly, brothers.

As with any debut issue, there’s a certain amount of exposition in Batman/Superman #1 in order to establish the characters and the main narrative, but Williamson manages to keep things relatively tight, coherent and moving at a steady pace – the central plot and the investigations by Batman and Superman building gently throughout, drawing the reader into the action neatly without it rushing the story along or hindering its momentum.  It’s unfortunate that DC spoiled the closing twist of the book in their marketing but whether you’re familiar with that or not, the issue remains a gripping and suspenseful read.

Making the move from Marvel Comics to DC, David Marquez produces superlative visuals, rendering powerful characters and cinematic layouts – adding an ever so slight element of grit to his beautifully detailed pencils that’s fitting for the tone of the comic, keeping it moody and atmospheric in all the right places whilst creating exciting and clearly staged action scenes.

The bottom line:  It’s been too long since we’ve had a Batman/Superman comic and it’s off to a confident and reassuring start under the perfectly matched creative team of Joshua Williamson and David Marquez.

Batman/Superman #1 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Batman: Year One’

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

“From this moment on…none of you are safe”

Batman Year One

An example of the amazing artwork for ‘Batman: Year One’ by David Mazzucchelli (image credit: DC Comics).

Year:  1987

Written by:  Frank Miller / art by:  David Mazzucchelli / colours by:  Richmond Lewis

What’s it about?

As Gotham City faces endless crime and corruption, billionaire Bruce Wayne decides to adopt the vigilante persona of ‘the Batman’ and soon learns he may have an ally in Gotham Police Lieutenant James Gordon…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Subsequent to the culture shattering success of The Dark Knight Returns, “Year One” is Frank Miller’s other – no less significant – seminal Batman work.  Originally published as a four-part story arc in Batman (volume 1) issues #404-407 and collected numerously over the past thirty years, Batman: Year One, as the title suggests, chronicles the Dark Knight’s first year of crime-fighting in Gotham City.  Written by Miller, with art by David Mazzucchelli (who also collaborated with Miller on the iconic Daredevil story “Born Again”) and colours by Richmond Lewis, Year One is a perfect companion piece to The Dark Knight Returns.  Although Year One is a more grounded and less politically charged affair than that former work (which takes place out of the regular continuity in an alternate 1980s), there is a clear sense that they share the same DNA.

A Batman tale infused with influences of detective noir and classic crime fiction, Year One (which itself would go on to influence director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins) sees the return of Bruce Wayne to his home after several years away, discovering that things have only gotten worse as criminal gangs – spearheaded by mob boss Carmine Falcone aka “The Roman” – and dishonest officials feed the societal decay afflicting the people of Gotham City.  Whilst Year One depicts the beginnings of Bruce Wayne’s rise as the Batman, it’s equally a story about future police commissioner James Gordon, newly transferred to the Gotham City Police Department who, faced with a corrupt police system and bent colleagues on the take, fights to preserve the values of the good and freely practice the true and trusted responsibilities of law enforcement.  Miller deftly builds and intertwines this dual narrative as destiny draws both Wayne and Gordon together – kindred souls on different sides of legality ultimately battling for the same cause.

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More of David Mazzucchelli’s incredible art (image credit: DC Comics).

What is especially appealing about Year One is that Miller is not afraid to explore the frailties of the central heroes, which only makes the characters richer and more relatable.  Bruce continues to be haunted by the murder of his parents, his anger fuelling his war on crime and the actions he undertakes as he becomes a feared creature of the night.  He’s far less brutal than the elder and more grizzled man he is in The Dark Knight Returns (and in fact commits several heroic acts in the story, including saving the life of Gordon’s son) but the seeds are planted here.  Gordon himself is inherently a decent man working hard to protect all that he loves and values but despite being a devoted husband and father succumbs to an affair with his GCPD partner, Sarah.  Selina Kyle is less clear cut, a prostitute and thief who decides enough is enough and that those less fortunate need not fear the criminal gang hierarchy as she begins to adopt a certain feline-fatale vigilante persona of her own.

Year One is beautifully realised by David Mazzucchelli (whose Bruce Wayne bares a nifty resemblance to Hollywood legend Gregory Peck) with a clean, classic pulp style that’s moodily enhanced by the nuances of Richmond Lewis’s colour palette, giving the visuals an appropriate film-noir appearance.  It’d also be remiss not to mention the lettering by Tod Klein, which is especially effective in the monologues, adding to the poetic quality of Miller’s writing all making for one of the all-time greatest Batman stories.

Standout moment

Injured and forced into the basement of a dilapidated building, Batman faces capture as a SWAT team closes in on him…but they didn’t reckon on his ingenuity as he calls for ‘backup’.

Geek fact!

Ben Mackenzie, who portrayed James Gordon in Batman prequel series Gotham provided the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the 2011 animated adaptation of Year One.

If you like this then check out…

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns : considered by many as Frank Miller’s magnum opus that’s not just a phenomenal, operatic Batman story but also a landmark in comics and pop culture.

Batman: The Killing Joke : Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s iconic Joker story is a stark, shocking and dramatic affair and presents a possible origin for the homicidal and psychotic Clown Prince of Crime.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Film Review: ‘Batman: Hush’

Warner Bros. Animation adapt another popular Batman story for the latest DC Universe animated film… 

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The Dark Knight Detective returns in the Warner Bros. Animation release ‘Batman: Hush’ (image credit Warner Bros/DC Entertainment).

Spoiler-free review

Starring (voices):  Jason O’Mara, Jennifer Morrison, Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Peyton List, Geoffrey Arend, Maury Sterling, Rainn Wilson

Directed by:  Justin Copeland / written by:  Ernie Altbacker / 81 minutes

What’s it about?

Pitted against some of his oldest and most dangerous foes, Batman soon finds himself facing a new enemy – the mysterious ‘Hush’…

In review

Batman: Hush is the latest DC animated film from Warner Bros. Animation, based upon the popular 12-issue story arc (written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee) from 2002.  “Hush” is rightfully considered as one of the greatest modern era Batman stories in which Bruce Wayne faces a gauntlet of villains and a mysterious new nemesis – a manipulative, bandage-faced foe known as ‘Hush’ – whilst grappling with stark revelations from his past and the complications of a burgeoning romance with Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

This direct-to-video animated adaptation is an enjoyable one, doing a reasonably solid job of translating the source material to the screen and neatly condensing its elaborate plot into a relatively short running time of 81 minutes (around average for the DC animated films).  Certain elements of the original story are either trimmed or cut entirely but Hush generally feels cohesive and flows steadily without rushing through the narrative or unnecessarily dragging its heels.  Certain changes are made in order to service the adaptation or for creative reasons (mainly to fit Hush within the mainline ‘DC Universe Movie’ continuity) but for the most part they add a freshness to the story for those who have read the comics.  There is, however, one particular alteration that is likely to prove divisive and although it works for the film it arguably robs it of some of the emotional power of the original comic book story – leading to a fairly satisfying but less weighty finale that doesn’t quite measure up to the source material.

As with the comics, Hush places significant focus on the Batman/Catwoman relationship and that plays out as expected, as do several key moments fans will expect – the highlights undoubtedly being that iconic Bat/Cat rooftop embrace, Batman’s ‘tussle’ with Superman – the closest we’ve ever come to the epic conflict in previous DC animation Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II – and of course, the Batman’s ragingly brutal and bloody encounter with the Joker (pushing the film’s PG13/15 certificate rating).  The inclusion of Bane adds to the drama and adrenaline, although it’s a shame he’s not much beyond a dumb, musclebound brute here, although we are provided with a narrative reason for the character acting less “eloquent” than fans may be accustomed to.

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The Bat and Cat in ‘Batman: Hush’ (image credit: Warner Bros/DC Entertainment).

The voice acting performances are fine, if a tad unexceptional.  Whilst no Kevin Conroy, Jason O’Mara (in his fourth solo outing as the Batman, following Son of Batman, Batman vs Robin and Batman: Bad Blood) is non-the-less reliable in the central role of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jennifer Morrison is equally adept at delivering the requisite slinky, feline quality to Selina Kyle/Catwoman and the chemistry between the pair is adequate if unremarkable.  Peyton List does well handling two completely different roles – Poison Ivy and Batgirl, Jason Spisak eerily channels Mark Hamill as the Joker, alas Bruce Thomas isn’t the greatest fit for Commissioner Gordon, nor is James Garrett as Alfred (to be fair we have been spoilt by some real star casting in those roles previously).  On the plus side, Hynden Walch is superb as Harley Quinn as is Sean Maher as Nightwing and Geoffrey Arend delivers a pleasingly menacing Riddler whilst Maury Stirling proves a good choice for Bruce’s childhood friend, Thomas Elliott.  There’s also the welcome return of Jerry O’Connell as Clark Kent/Superman as well as Rebecca Romijn as Lois Lane and Rainn Wilson is once again suitably devious as Lex Luthor.

The style of Hush continues the pseudo-anime design of prior DC animation releases which may not be to everyone’s liking but gives an established and consistent look to the universe, although it lacks the detail and craft of Jim Lee’s comic book pencils.  Director Justin Copeland keeps everything tight and focused and delivers some strong and well-staged action scenes which is no small wonder given his experience as a storyboard artist on previous DC animation projects including Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, The Death of Superman and most recently, Reign of the Supermen.

The bottom line:  Batman: Hush is another entertaining Warner Bros/DC animation release that, despite a controversial alteration, does a good job of adapting the iconic comic book story.

Batman: Hush is available digitally now with Blu-ray and DVD releases to follow in August.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Comics Review: ‘Event Leviathan’ #1

Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev re-unite for DC’s new mystery thriller…

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Alex Maleev’s evocative and moody cover for DC’s ‘Event Leviathan’ #1 (credit: DC Entertainment).

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / art by:  Alex Maleev

What’s it about?

Drawn together as they investigate the destruction of key intelligence agencies, Batman, Lois Lane, Green Arrow and The Question find that they must uncover the identity of the mysterious perpetrator known as Leviathan before more attacks can occur…

In review

Writer Brian Michael Bendis expands his DC Comics work with Event Leviathan a six-issue mini-series that unites some of the DC Universe’s greatest detectives – Batman, Lois Lane, Green Arrow and The Question to investigate the decimation of the intelligence community by Leviathan, an enemy whose true identity remains unknown.  Teaming up with his most celebrated collaborator, artist Alex Maleev (the duo having previously worked on titles such as Daredevil, International Iron Man, Infamous Iron Man and the creator-owned Jinxworld series, Scarlet), Brian Bendis provides a promising and intriguing start to this gritty mystery thriller.

Less of an actual sprawling ‘event’ in the traditional sense, which usually involves collecting a plethora of titles and numerous tie-ins, Event Leviathan spills out of the recent “Leviathan Rising” arc in the Bendis penned (with art by Steve Epting) Action Comics yet is a contained story in its own right, although a reading of that aforementioned arc (and forthcoming issues of Action) will enrich the experience of this first issue.  This isn’t an action and plot heavy premiere and Bendis incorporates a decent amount of exposition to recap the events in Action Comics and the groundwork laid there, making the book accessible to new readers.  This might make things a little slow and ponderous to those who do follow that Superman – who is actually absent here – title but it sets the mood and we are drawn in by the dialogue as Bendis reiterates the stakes, principally the destruction of the facilities of intelligence agencies ARGUS, the DEO and Spyral, the dynamics between the central characters (always a strength with Brian Michael Bendis) and the mystery they must work together to quickly unravel – the identity of the masked Leviathan.

Bendis has already been crafting a solid run on both Superman and Action Comics and has certainly nailed the core components of Lois Lane’s personality and that continues seamlessly in Event Leviathan, pinning down her drive and determination to the truth – and not unlike her Kryptonian husband, justice.  He also has a unique handling of Batman who is slightly more engaging and forthcoming with others as well as being prone to a dash of dry sarcasm, in comparison to the more bleak and troubled soul of Tom King’s Batman.  That’s no criticism of King’s work but that specific approach wouldn’t quite fit in with Event Leviathan where the Dark Knight needs to be committed to a common cause.  It’s not necessarily inconsistent, just appropriate for this story and Bendis ensures that there’s a focus on the skill and deduction we expect and enjoy in any representation of Batman.  Aside from Lois and Batman, Bendis delivers strong takes on Green Arrow and The Question giving both significant roles to play and the tension is heightened by an injured and defensive Steve Trevor, desperate to prevent his survival of Leviathan’s acts being seen as a source of suspicion.

Alex Maleev’s art (who also provides his own inks and colours) is, as usual, sublime with the dirty and gritty visuals giving Event Leviathan the sort of grounded, detective noir feel it needs and whilst there’s that certain street-level sense that came with his work on Daredevil, he’s also just as capable when it comes to creating epic scenes – the crumbling interior of the new ARGUS base and the establishing exterior shot of its prior state are stark and beautiful, respectively.

The bottom line:  Event Leviathan launches with a slow burning but interesting and atmospheric start, made all the more appealing thanks to a tried and trusted creative team.

Event Leviathan #1 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).