Comic Recommendations: December 9, 2015

This was a good week for comic books: DC Comics rolled out both Batman and Robin Eternal #10 and Constantine – The Hellblazer #7; Image brought us The Walking Dead #149 and the final issue of We Stand on Guard; and Marvel edges one step closer to concluding Secret Wars and explaining what the heck is going on with the Marvel Universe! As an added bonus, I got caught up on Jeff Lemire and Humberto Ramos’ Extraordinary X-Men.

UNSPOILED

  1. Batman and Robin Eternal #10 (DC Comics), Unspoiled Edition

Batman and Robin Eternal 10 01

There are a couple of things that the weekly comic Batman and Robin Eternal brings to the table that many of the monthly comics are not able to accomplish, the ability to explore many more people, places, and things and a strong sense of adventure and fun. Issue #10 puts Red Hood, Red Robin, and Bane up against Azrael and his Holy Warrior Brothers for the soul of Santa Prisca. Sometimes this book feels like it is just taking you from point A to point B, but at other times it is just a blast to read. This is one of those “other times.”

  1. Constantine – The Hellblazer #7 (DC Comics), Unspoiled Edition

Constantine The Hellblazer 07 01

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I never thought I would give a rip about John Constantine’s emotional availability but Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV have done the unthinkable. Even the obligatory cameo issue featuring Swamp Thing feels fresh and important. Constantine – The Hellblazer #7 further develops John Constantine’s risky love life experiment while delivering a pretty interesting one-off adventure in New York City. Always a surprise, this is probably the book that you are not reading but should be.

  1. The Walking Dead #149 (Image Comics), Unspoiled Edition

The Walking Dead 149 01

You never know what to expect with The Walking Dead, except that it is going to be fantastic. The only reason I didn’t ask for the 48-issue compendium editions for Christmas is because I am afraid my dog might eat them before I could show my future children what they could be reading some day. In issue #149, all of the pieces are subtly put into place for the big milestone issue. My goodness, I cannot wait for another issue of The Walking Dead.

  1. We Stand on Guard #6 (Image Comics), Unspoiled Edition

We Stand on Guard 06 01

Brian K. Vaughan’s futuristic Canadian war saga comes to an end in We Stand on Guard #6, leaving readers with only Saga and Paper Girls to quench their thirst for Vaughan’s writing. Though we will certainly miss We Stand on Guard, the other two books are more than enough. If you haven’t read We Stand on Guard the six-issue mini-series will almost certainly be available in trade paperback form within the next couple of months. It’ll be late for Christmas, but not too late for you to use your Christmas cash and gift cards on.

SPOILED

  1. Batman and Robin Eternal #10 (DC Comics), Spoiled Edition

Batman and Robin Eternal 10 03

Many of you are familiar with the fact that Facebook has doubled down on assisting users with sharing memories from previous years. Well, I was recently asked if I wanted to share some comments I’d made on Batman’s “Knightfall” arc many years ago. I had said something along the lines of, “For all of you out there who had to suffer through the Jean-Paul Valley Batman years in real time, I feel sorry for you. Those issues are really difficult to get through.” Flash forward a couple of days and I am reviewing a brand new Batman story featuring both Bane and Azrael. In fact, some of you might remember a post from a couple weeks ago where I accidentally predicted that we’d see Azrael in Batman and Robin Eternal. I feel super proud for that one.

While I really enjoyed this particular issue, it points to a difficulty that has surfaced with the New 52 universe, namely that some of the best stories of all time are getting thrown out for the sake of keeping things fresh. If this is the first time Tim Drake has ever met Jean-Paul Valley / Azrael, that means that at least some portion of “Knightfall” never happened. Considering my commentary on reading the comics from that era you’d think I’d be happy about this fact, but that is not the case. The concepts and outline of “Knightfall” are some of the coolest things that have ever taken place in the Batman universe. The idea that Batman was broken but not killed, that he passed on his legacy to an untested hero who later went rogue, and finally that a healed Bruce Wayne would have to take out this new Batman for the sake of Gotham — it doesn’t get much better than that. Furthermore, the delivery of some of the latter stories was spot on. It is possible that some portion of this story still exists in the New 52 universe, but we definitely cannot balance the whole story with the events of Batman and Robin Eternal.

Batman and Robin Eternal 10 02

What do we lose? “Knightfall” establishes Bane as one of the most formidable Batman foes of all time, second only to the Joker in importance. But if Jean-Paul Valley never became Batman then I seriously doubt that Bane ever broke Bruce Wayne’s back. The further we push this back, one has to wonder: Why did Bane even come to Gotham in the first place? Why would he come if not to take the city from the Bat? Furthermore, Bane never seemed like the type to give up easily. He was strong, fast, and brilliant, which means that he would either break the Bat or he would end up dead. Without this backstory, and backstory is crucial to DC characters more so than anyone else save maybe Spider-man, Bane is some absurd wrestler in a mask, little more. Jean-Paul Valley isn’t exactly a heavy hitter in the DC universe post-Knightfall, but he is probably as integral to Tim Drake’s backstory as Joe Chill is to Bruce’s, Tony Zucco is to Dick’s, and the Joker is to both to Jason and Barbara’s. There is something very deep missing if we do not have this story.

What do we gain? As I mentioned, Jean-Paul Valley had a disappointing reign as Batman — although he certainly brought new meaning to the nickname “Caped Crusader” — and little impact after Knightfall, so this New 52 makeover certainly suggests that he might have a more prominent and recurring position from here on out. He is now part of an organization that has been developed for some time in Grayson and he is potentially a hand-crafted crime fighting son created for Bruce Wayne many years ago. Way to go, bro. We also get a bit of uncertainty regarding the direction of our superheroes’ lives which we wouldn’t have were Knightfall repeated or assumed as canon. These are all good for story development and they are all good for sales.

I guess the take home message is that this sort of thing happens with each and every Crisis in the DC Universe. You just never know what is canon or not canon until it has been referred to (Batgirl’s flashback to Joker shooting her in Batgirl #1, for example) or overwritten (Jean-Paul Valley in this issue). If you want the depth that comes with years of continuity, you are probably reading Marvel comics anyways. Furthermore, a New 52 re-imagination of the Bane and Azrael story does not erase the existence of all those other comics. You can still pick up the trades at a Barnes and Noble and enjoy them as if they had never been retconned. In fact, “Convergence” suggested that these realities all still exist in some shape or form. However messy that is, it means we ultimately get the best of both worlds. Sure, any time you explain Batman’s history from origin to present it is now a publication history rather than a character history, but it is still Batman. And Batman is awesome. What is the true test for comics? That they keep selling! What is the true test for me? That they keep putting out stories good enough for me to review them like I am reviewing Batman and Robin Eternal #10.

  1. Constantine – The Hellblazer #7 (DC Comics), Spoiled Edition

Constantine The Hellblazer 07 05

John Constantine was first introduced in Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, and as a result it seems like a DC Comics tradition to have a Constantine / Swamp Thing team-up in every Constantine volume. Some of these throughout the years have felt like a forced sacrifice to the gods of the green, but Swamp Thing’s appearance in Constantine – The Hellblazer was just a treat. The story came together like an early episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there is a dire situation (Swamp Thing is disconnected from the web of plant life in New York City) featuring a supernatural threat (Tree Nymphs) that shares a common theme with the overarching character development content (SEX!).

Constantine The Hellblazer 07 06

The art, as always, was fantastic, Swamp Thing was just disconnected enough from human pleasantries to be comedic but not idiotic, and the theme of the current arc was reinforced. It is dangerous life and death dangerous eternal damnation dangerous to get involved with John Constantine. I really want things to go well for John and his beau, but I honestly don’t think it is possible. When a dilemma like this arises, it comes down to whether or not you trust the creators to base their tragic decisions on better character development, and in this case I really do. I’m interested to see where things are going in Constantine – The Hellblazer. Issue #7 is much like the previous six, surprisingly delightful and spellbinding.

  1. The Walking Dead #149 (Image Comics), Spoiled Edition

The Walking Dead 149 02

Sometimes I think I know where Robert Kirkman is going with The Walking Dead, then Rick comes along and says something like, “Are you kidding me? Of course I’m not going to let you out, Negan!” I suppose this is why I am just as excited to read the series at issue #149 as I was at issue #1. Due to the fact that I got into comics in the 1990s when there were gigantic, shiny X-Men milestone issues every other Wednesday, I think I may just have foolish expectations for new comics. I was thinking something major was going to go down, something that is impossible to overcome, and Rick was going to have to figure a way out of it in issue #150. Reality was contrary to my expectations. This issue merely puts everyone in their places, presumably so everything can blow up in the next issue. I have to say that this issue is probably one of the more clever lead-ins to something big, because it really does not seem to hint toward what is coming next. We are supposed to feel some anxiety over the fact that Negan is sitting in a cage and the people from his community presumably will want to break him out and elect them his leader once again, but the thing that really makes me anxious is the fact that Maggie was seen playing with her baby boy. Losing him would hurt.

The Walking Dead 149 03

Sure, there’s a ton to talk about, what with Negan and his people on the map alongside the Whisperers and Rick’s people ready to revolt if his military gambit doesn’t work, but what I’d rather do is fast forward to January 13 when The Walking Dead #150 is scheduled to be released.

The Walking Dead 149 04

  1. We Stand on Guard #6 (Image Comics), Spoiled Edition

Brian K. Vaughan’s We Stand on Guard is simultaneously a commentary on both comic book superheroes and current world affairs. In issue #6, this dialogue ties up pretty succinctly. Kal El / Clark Kent lost his entire race when Krypton exploded and Bruce Wayne lost his family to inner city crime, but Amber’s final words hit hard. When you murder someone’s family, that person doesn’t turn into the embodiment of truth and justice. The orphan becomes the avenger, the reckoner, the murderer. In other words, war creates terrorists and marauders, not heroes and patriots.

We Stand on Guard 06 02

The easy interpretation would be to suggest that we should not be surprised that sects in the Middle East and across the globe have identified the USA as the great evil. If your parents are killed in a drone attack, you’re probably going to want to inflict the same horrors on the person behind the controls. However, and maybe this is my own age, I think the same thing can be said on the flip side. It should come as no surprise that a child who lost a parent in Iraq or Afghanistan might grow up and buy into Islamophobia. The fact that so much of this world is engaged in international conflict means that we are going to keep pumping out hate-filled blood-thirsty extremists. Clearly, this positions We Stand on Guard as a narrative version of the classic Gandhi quote, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” What is the alternative? Peace? I don’t know if Vaughan would claim that peace is even a possibility anymore. The only peace we see in We Stand on Guard comes after the carnage and destruction of the US and Canadian forces. In other words, we see a lot more blood and guts than we do love beads and flowers. Perhaps the only peace lies in the metaphorical afterlife that Vaughan presents in his flashback to before Amber’s family was murdered.

We Stand on Guard 06 03

We Stand on Guard is over, but we will no doubt resume some of these threads of thought in future issues ofSaga. In fact, a comparison between Amber from We Stand on Guard and Hazel from Saga in terms of children raised in wartime might be an interesting thing to read. Somebody write that already!

* * *

Extraordinary X-Men 01 01

The X-Men were my original gateway into comic books. In the 1990s, I picked up just about everything from Onslaught through Bastion, and a little over a decade ago I read every X-Men-related comic released by Marvel between 1963 and 1986/87. I was really excited for Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men, but then Brian Michael Bendis’s All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men turned into the flagship of all things X, but I honestly feel like Lemire and Ramos’ Extraordinary X-Men is the truest X-Men comic released in the last five or so years. I only read a couple of issues during the “Decimation” event, so I don’t have the same problems as some of the harder critics who say Extraordinary X-Men is an unoriginal volume rehashing the end of new mutant births, but even taking that into consideration this rewind is not the only innovation of Extraordinary X-Men and innovation is not the only measure of a good comic book.

Extraordinary X-Men 02 03

The X-Men are now living in times much more dangerous than they have ever faced before. To safeguard the Jean Grey school from threats, Storm has asked Magik to transport the school to Limbo, they have called in every ally they can find (effectively putting an end to the Schism just as Bendis attempted in Uncanny X-Men #600), and they are actively attempting to save any remaining mutant and many Inhumans from government sponsored gene-culling. Cyclops has apparently been killed after attacking the Inhumans (who Beast is now teamed up with). Storm is center-stage, which is something that I have wanted for YEARS, and she is haunted (?) by Professor Xavier.

Extraordinary X-Men 01 02

We haven’t seen Xavier since the Amazing X-Men invaded heaven to save Nightcrawler, but between then and now Secret Wars happened and messed everything up. Lemire has continued Aaron and Bendis’ crusade to develop Iceman, who recently unleashed an army of snow men which he controls by going into a Yogic trance. Magik has been rescuing mutants and Inhumans worldwide but doing so solo.

Extraordinary X-Men 01 03

Once this proved too dangerous, she was tasked with bringing in her brother Colossus and his best friend Nightcrawler.

Extraordinary X-Men 01 06

Colossus has been making excuses for not being a part of the action, and Nightcrawler has apparently been hunting a new variant on The Marauders. The team has been actively attempting to recruit young Jean Grey, who they believe to be the lynchpin to their further success, but who wants to pursue her education (just like original Jean Grey when the original series was cancelled for several years in the 60s/70s!). Finally, there is Old Man Wolverine who apparently knows that he doesn’t belong in this time or even in this reality.

Extraordinary X-Men 03 02

I think it is likely that Extraordinary X-Men is Lemire’s best comic to date. Animal Man was fantastic at first, but then after a while it seemed limited by both its character base and too much editorial oversight. With Extraordinary X-Men it really feels like Lemire has the ability to really let loose. Every issue suggests that Lemire is sitting on years of story notes, all of which get straight to the heart of what it means to be the X-Men. The best measure of this comic’s success, however, is the fact that I am left thinking about it from issue to issue. Extraordinary X-Men may be my favorite comic book right now.

Either that or The Walking Dead

Or Revival

Whatever. Leave me a lone. There are a lot of great comic books out there, which brings me to another point: I am out of comics to catch up on. I may get caught up on the Old Man Logan stories since I missed that whole trend when it was coming out, but I’m always looking for current comics that I have overlooked. Like John Stuart Mill, I think I have to guard myself from being wrong and selling something short. To do so, I need my comic book public to keep me in check. Let me know what you love, friends, because I’d love to read it and write about it!

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