Batman: White Knight by Sean Murphy – A Graphic Novel Review

I’ve read a lot of Batman stories in my day, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like Batman: White Knight.

Published under the DC: Black Label imprint aimed at more mature audiences, Batman: White Knight is a stand-alone collection that exists outside of regular Batman continuity.  Because of this, anything can happen.  Even so, for a book that is disconnected to the monthly Batman stories, it is oddly beholden to them as well as to the cartoons, video games, and movies.  More on that in a moment …

White Knight embraces a simple premise — What if Joker became good and Batman turned evil?  Now, the story is not quite that simple, but that’s the central concept.  Sean Murphy dives deeply into that idea while also exploring familial bonds, corrupt politics, abusive relationships, and mental health.  Like I said, this book distinctively examines content in a way that is unrivaled.

However, even though the story kept me guessing, certain aspects struck me as obviously recognizable.  For example, White Knight pays homage to the classic animated series, all of the Batman movies, the old live-action TV show, the comic books, and even the various Batman video games.  It’s as though parts of all of that happened in this Batman’s past, but in a way that we can’t fully understand.

Make no mistake, however, Murphy’s depiction of Batman and Joker, as well as their supporting cast, is what makes this book so enticing.  This is a Batman even more unhinged than in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  This is a Joker unusually sane.  This is a Harley Quinn gloriously empowered.  This is a Commissioner Gordon realistically compromised.  This is a Gotham City genuinely broken by its atypical combination of criminals and vigilantes.  And though the book is gritty, it’s also not afraid to be bombastic.  Murphy offers an ending that seems like something out of The Fast and the Furious — and I mean that as a compliment.

Finally, Murphy is the writer and artist on this title, so I wanted to address his line work.  His Batman is feral, intimidating, and a force of nature.  Murphy tweaked the costume just a bit, but it’s his use of shadows and shading that really makes his panels pop.  Speaking of costumes, I love the slight alterations Murphy made to everyone’s look in this book.  You’ll know who’s who, don’t worry about that.  The changes he made were simultaneously appropriate and dynamic.

If you’re a Batman fan but feel like you’ve seen it all, give White Knight a chance.  It will strike you as extraordinary.

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My Unpopular Concern Regarding Captain Marvel

There’s a lot riding on Marvel’s latest installment, Captain Marvel.  With this being the final chapter leading into what we can only believe to be the end of the current iteration of Marvel movies (a journey that’s lasted over ten years), Captain Marvel has to get it just right.  I have three concerns I’d like to discuss with you.  The first two probably won’t be a factor.  The third could very well be a reality.

First and foremost, Marvel needs to prove they can produce a film featuring a female lead.  Captain Marvel is a great character to achieve this goal, though many wonder why Black Widow hasn’t already gotten the call to action.  To me, it’s rather obvious.  Centering a movie around a former Russian assassin sounds like an engaging concept, but not when Disney is your corporate owner focused on creating family-friendly super hero films.  Captain Marvel has the potential to rival Wonder Woman in terms of charisma and broad appeal, but I think she’s fighting an uphill battle because the average person just doesn’t know her.  I personally don’t believe Marvel has a standout female hero at all that the general public is aware of, and this saddens me, but hopefully Captain Marvel will change that.

Secondly, Captain Marvel can’t–simply cannot–act as a deus ex machina that changes everything at the last minute leading into Avengers: Endgame.  I’m already suspicious of Nick Fury only now deciding to “beep” Captain Marvel after failing to do so for an alien invasion, a murderous robot, an angry Norse god, and a rampaging green Goliath, but that’s fine.  Story elements can’t be predicted, especially when creating a ten-year odyssey.  My hope is that they will explain Captain Marvel’s absence, and that they won’t have her execute her own version of the finger snap.  Infinity War needs to have real repercussions.  I’m not so naive as to believe Spider-Man or Black Panther will stay dead, but I feel that if Captain Marvel reverses time or undoes death than the last ten years will have been a sham.  For the record, I don’t believe they will do this in Captain Marvel, but the possibility does concern me.  I think the creators behind the Marvel movies know how to satisfy the audience without cheating their story.

Along those lines, the Skrulls better not pull the kind of shenanigans they do in the comics.  If you’re not familiar with this alien race, they are capable of shape-shifting.  They have literally posed as super heroes in the Marvel Comics Universe for years.  Just read Secret Invasion if you want an infuriating example of this.  This is the scenario that causes me the most apprehension because I think there is a good possibility that they will spring this one on us.  Imagine a story where the Skrulls were so deep undercover that they didn’t even know they weren’t human.  Envision a plot in which the undercover Skrull super hero dies due to Thanos’ snap, but then the real super hero is freed from Skrull detainment to rescue the universe.  It would be a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of situation.  Marvel has done this sort of thing in the comic books, and it made me feel very cheated.  If Captain Marvel is simply a vehicle to lead us into a Skrull invasion that will culminate in Endgame

As it happens, I’m seeing Captain Marvel soon.  You can expect my review immediately thereafter.  I’m excited to see it, but I’m also somewhat leery due to the Skrull element of the film.  We’ll know soon enough!

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Manifest Destiny: Fortis and Invisibilia by Dingess and Roberts – A Book Review

The Manifest Destiny series continues to be perfect for those who love the comic book genre but are not fans of super heroes.  Now on its sixth volume, Manifest Destiny details a fictionalized account of Lewis and Clark as they explore America’s new west.  Thomas Jefferson tasked them with this exploration, but the premise is that history has it wrong.  It wasn’t just to map the area and find a waterway to the Pacific, but also to record and eliminate any super natural creatures posing a threat to future American pioneers.

In this latest volume, Lewis and Clark, as well as their party, have built a fort in order to hunker down during the winter.  However, the men grow weary of the leadership, they grow lustful for the few women in the group, and they grow mutinous against the chain of command.  To make matters worse, the entity for whom we thought spoke only to Lewis?  It’s expanding its influence.

Manifest Destiny began as an adventure comic with touches of horror as it offered both accurate and fictionalized accounts of Lewis and Clark’s travels.  However, Chris Dingess has transitioned the book into a psychological thriller as the men are growing stir crazy in their fort, trapped by nature itself, as well as perhaps the supernatural.

Matthew Roberts continues to blend historically accurate scenery with terrifying creatures throughout.  The clothing he depicts particularly astounds me.  I’d love to know his research methods.  It all seems quite meticulous.  Furthermore, when violence occurs in this book, it is not for the squeamish.  I also appreciate that the colorist, Owen Gieni, has opted to use fairly muted colors to match the eerie tone of isolation and winter.  The book once sported vibrant greens and lush vegetation, but no longer.  It’s a subtle touch, but a deft one.

I have very much enjoyed this series so far.  I highly recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction, horror, thrillers, and fantasy.  Not to worry if you’ve never read a comic book.  No one is perfect, and you’ll figure it out quickly.  I know you will become hooked on this title.

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Bill Maher Is Mostly Wrong, But He’s Also a Little Bit Right

I read an article over at ScreenRant describing an editorial by Bill Maher basically taking comic book fans to task.  More specifically, taking adult comic book fans to task.

This seems to be a complicated story.  It appears to have started when Bill Maher wrote a blog post called “Adulting.”  In it, he basically reacts to the huge outpouring of sadness related to Stan Lee’s death and claims that comic book fans need to grow up and leave childish things behind.

He then used his HBO show, Real Time, to try to clarify his remarks.  ScreenRant, via ComicBook.com, posted a transcription of what he said.

“Tonight’s editorial is about Stan Lee who, if you missed it, died in November. And a few days later, I posted a blog that in no way was an attack on Mr. Lee, but took the occasion of his death to express my dismay at people who think comic books are literature and superhero movies are great cinema and who, in general, are stuck in an everlasting childhood. Bragging that you’re all about the Marvel Universe is like boasting your mother still pins your mittens to your sleeves.

“You can, if you want, like the exact same things you liked when you were ten but if you do, you need to grow up. That was the point of my blog. I’m not glad Stan Lee is dead, I’m sad you’re alive. […]

“Director Kevin Smith accused me of ‘taking a shot when no shots are f**kin’ necessary,’ except again my shot wasn’t at Stan Lee. It was at, you know, grown men who still dress like kids.

“Can we stop pretending that the writing in comic books is so good? Oh, please. Every superhero movie is the same thing–a person who doesn’t have powers, gets them, has to figure out how they work, and then has to find a glowy thing.

“I’m sorry, but if you’re an adult playing with superhero dolls, I’m sorry – I mean collectible action figures – why not go all the way and drive to work on a Big Wheel?”

So, here’s the thing.  Bill Maher is mostly wrong–yes.  Without a doubt.  But … he’s also a little right.

He’s wrong in that we all know there are some very strong writers in the comic book industry.  Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Brian K. Vaughan, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Gail Simone are a few that spring to mind.  These are writers who have transcended their genre and written some comic books that should absolutely be considered “literary”–whatever that means.

He’s also missing out on some great cinema existing within the super hero genre.  After all, Black Panther just got nominated for a “Best Picture” Oscar.  Most consider The Dark Knight an instant-classic.  Not a classic “comic book” movie, but just a classic film–period.

But, let’s be honest, he’s also hit on some valid points.  Most comic books, and most comic book movies, are pretty easy to predict.  Most of them do follow a prescribed formula.  And many adults do take both comic books and comic book movies far too seriously.

The nature of the corporate-owned recurring comic book character absolutely necessitates the repetition of stories.  Think about this–Superman has been published monthly since 1938.  Batman has appeared every month since 1939.  It is impossible not to revisit similar plot lines every decade or so, especially when considering that these are not finite stories.  No matter what happens, these characters will be back in just thirty days.  It’s hard to get too original when working within these editorial confines.  They can’t really do anything too drastic to Superman for too long.  Same goes for Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Spider-Man, etc.  If you’re a DC fan, how many “crises” have there been now?  If you’re a Marvel fan, how often has there been “an age of …” or “no more mutants?”

Consequently, Bill Maher hit on something that’s been particularly troubling me of late.  Because so many adults do still read comic books, the comic book industry really isn’t aimed at children anymore.  It’s aimed at, well, grown-ups.  As a result, the plots get lazier and lazier.

Let me explain.

Because most people my age have read virtually every kind of comic book story out there, the industry feels the need to “shock” us time and again by killing off major characters.  First of all, no one believes Wolverine or Superman or even Jason Todd is ever really “dead.”  I just read a headline the other day that they killed off Dr. Leslie Thompkins.  This is a kind woman who helped take care of young Bruce Wayne after his parents’ murder.  She appears only sporadically in the DC Universe, but, because she’d never been killed before, they decided to “shock” the audience by calling her number.  There’s an entire comic book series going on right now called Heroes In Crisis whose entire premise is that heroes were murdered while seeking emotional support at a sanctuary.  Yes, you read that right.  I’m sorry, but comic books deserve every criticism they get when killing off characters seems to be the best the writers can come up with.

However, Bill Maher is missing something vital about super heroes.  These comic book characters are undeniably derivatives of gods and demigods from centuries’ old myths and religions.  We are intrinsically drawn to these characters.  At this point in human history, their archetypes are sewn into our collective subconscious.  They represent our hopes and our dreams, our aspirations to conquer fear and the unknown.

With that being said, I do think it’s important that adults keep these characters in perspective, though.  Let the children have these characters.  Let them inspire the young as they did most of the adults who still love them.  If there’s any bone I have to pick with my generation, it’s that we are unwilling to relinquish the things we loved as children.  We want Star Wars our way.  We want Ghostbusters our way.  We want She-Ra our way.  We want comic books our way.  We need to be wiling to stand back and let these things evolve in such a manner as to appeal to today’s youth.  We can enjoy these characters as they change for our children, and we can appreciate that they are not suffering arrested development.  Of course, that would require that the adults are unwilling to suffer arrested development as well.

So, as you can see, Bill Maher had it mostly wrong, but he was also a little bit right.  While I agree with him that adults need to lighten up when it comes to these characters and leave them primarily to the children, I think it’s vital that we don’t dismiss the incredible impact they have had on society and continue to have.  Like any book or movie, the extraordinary should not be suppressed merely because of its genre.

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 (Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

 

 

Black Hammer – A Book Review

The cover to this book really threw me off.  I thought it was going to be some kind of a dark magic or horror book.  And though it’s got elements of both, it’s not at all what I expected.

Black Hammer: Secret Origins is about a group of super heroes who have been transported to a small, rural community and cannot leave their immediate surroundings.  Some of them are quite okay with this, some are ambivalent, and some are flat-out angry.

The six characters–by book’s end–captured my interest and prompted me to reserve the next installment at my local library, but I still can’t go so far as to say I “like” this book (even though I am clearly invested).

My primary issue is that the six characters are obvious riffs on popular DC and Marvel icons.  Shazam, Martian Manhunter, Captain America, Adam Strange–they’ve all been cribbed.  I found this kind of thing fascinating back in the mid-80s with Watchmen … I’m less entertained by it now.

Even so, the author, Jeff Lemire, excels at dialogue and character interaction, so I couldn’t help but be drawn in by this book.

Furthermore, the artwork is moody, dark, and eye-catching.  I particularly appreciated the facial expressions throughout.

They aren’t trying to pretend that they aren’t copying other characters, by the way.  There’s no deception taking place on their part.  And by the book’s conclusion, the characters have taken on a personality of their own and found themselves in an interesting predicament.  In fact, I have to hand it to Lemire in regards to character development.  Even though these characters begin as facsimiles, they soon become dynamic and full of engaging complications.  However, after almost four decades of reading comic books, none of these obstacles are unheard of.

It’s just, on a personal level, I feel like I’ve seen it all before.  The characters’ powers, the angst, even the isolation.  It’s all expertly-executed, but not especially fresh in my view.  Perhaps the next volume will completely win me over.  The good news is that I’m committed and want to keep reading this story.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Doctor Aphra: Remastered (Volume 3) – A Book Review

I still maintain that Doctor Aphra is one of the greatest additions to the Star Wars mythology in recent years, but this volume confirms my fear about the character–she cannot solely carry her own title.

This installment tries to spice things up a bit by making Doctor Aphra beholden to Triple-Zero, the murderous entity in the guise of a protocol droid.  Triple-Zero sends Aphra on a series of missions in which she must lead a group of mercenaries.  There are some interesting asides as Aphra develops a relationship with Magna Tolvan, the Imperial Officer.  Hera Syndulla also makes a substantial appearance, which was super cool to see.  But in the end, much of it felt forced to me.

The problem is that Doctor Aphra works best as a foil to, well, everyone else.  I love it when she pops into a scene, plays havoc with everyone and everything, and then leaves.  She has the luxury of being an agent of chaos.  She is naughty, hilarious, greedy, and lovable.  But in a title featuring her, she doesn’t have that advantage.  She has to carry every episode from month to month.  The writers seem obligated to reveal every little detail about her, and this is diluting the character.

In my opinion, Doctor Aphra has lost her “hook.”  She had it when she appeared in Darth Vader.  We knew just enough about her and what she was about and we (obviously) loved her.  Unfortunately, we loved her so much that they kept giving us more in the form of her own book.

I don’t know exactly how they can fix this issue, and I fully confess that this may be my issue alone.  Perhaps everyone else is loving the direction of the book and character.  I think I would like to see the book function as an ongoing gag on how Aphra swindles everyone she meets, but we never get the stories from her perspective.  Each arc would be narrated by her victims.  That would afford her the ability to maintain her mystique and “devil-may-care” persona.  It would take a great deal of creativity to constantly come up with stories where Aphra outsmarts everyone while revealing virtually nothing about herself, but I think that would maximize her potential.

Doctor Aphra does have a great deal of potential, by the way.  Clearly, she has connected with fandom.  I’m concerned that she’s being overexposed, though, and that we’re learning too much about her too quickly.  I adore this character and don’t want her to fade out of everyone’s interest.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Saints by Gene Luen Yang – A Book Review

I recently wrote a review of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers, and this book, Saints, is a companion piece.  In fact, it’s more than just a companion piece — it’s a conclusion.

In Boxers, there’s a moment where the main character, Bao, sees a young girl close to his own age.  He believes she looks like the devil.  Later on in the book, when they are both much older, Bao (seemingly) kills this girl in the city of Peking because she will not renounce her Christianity.

Saints is the story of that girl, from the time she is eight up until the age of fifteen.  She is simply called Four-Girl in the beginning by her family.  She is unwanted, unappreciated, and largely neglected.  It isn’t until she meets converts to Christianity that she begins to feel a sense of security.  Eventually, Four-Girl converts as well and chooses the name Vibiana.  However, throughout much of the book, and despite being visited frequently by Joan of Arc herself, Vibiana is not exactly the most devout of Christians.  She likes the food.  She likes the roof over her head.  She likes being recognized as a human being and not a waste of space.  It’s clear Jesus is not at the forefront of her mind.

When she hears of the Boxers headed to kill Christians, she is inspired to follow Joan of Arc’s lead and fight in the name of God.  But really … she just wants to fight.  After the life she’s endured, can you blame her?

She is eventually captured by Bao from Boxers, and at that moment you get to find out exactly what took place between them in that scene from the first book.

While Boxers is quite a bit longer, the ending of Saints struck me as far more poignant.  Admittedly, this could be because I consider myself a Christian as well.  Vibiana (Four-Girl) undergoes a tremendous change, one that I won’t spoil for you, but one that absolutely resonated.

As Boxers depicted Bao losing more and more of himself in his plight to save China, Saints offers a bittersweet story about Vibiana finding peace.  That tranquility, however does not arrive as one would expect.  Just the  opposite.

A noted Christian himself, I appreciated that Gene Luen Yang did not get too heavy-handed with Saints.  In fact, like with Boxers, he made a point to show the good and bad in everyone.  The Boxers consider themselves freedom fighters striving to preserve their culture, yet the Christian converts consider them monsters.  The Christians in the book believe themselves to be righteous, yet many of them are self-serving and overtly sinful.  However, in the end, Yang reminds us what it is to be truly selfless.  Some would say that’s being Christ-like.  Others would say it’s simply being compassionate.

Though the artwork is simply rendered, this is a powerful story about history, people, motive, and belief.

The epilogue of the book, by the way, shook me to my core.  Perfect.

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