Monday, November 08, 2004

Why "The Last Man"?

Begun in 2002, Y, The Last Man (from DC’s imprint Vertigo) has been praised by many. Wizard has said, “This book blew us away.” Other reviewers have echoed this tribute.

Taking an old science fiction premise, writer Brian K. Vaughan and primary artists Pia Guerra and José Marzá, Jr., have built a new story around a curious Armageddon. All of the men died suddenly and mysteriously. In fact, every mammal with a Y chromosome died a violent, bloody death. All, that is, except for the eponymous character Yorick Brown and his pet monkey.

Adrift in a sea of estrogen (to paraphrase Yorick’s lament), this last man must find a way to solve the mystery of the deaths and keep the human race from dying out, despite his myopic desire to find his missing girlfriend.

This, of course, sounds like the start of an X-Rated movie. But Vaughn avoids the titillating aspects of the premise and builds action adventure/thriller-style momentum as Yorick picks up some traveling companions. Key among these is Agent 355, who is charged by the new president (formerly a low level Cabinet member) to keep the lone male resource alive, and a genetic scientist, who may be able to repopulate the world through science.

After reading the first 17 issues in the three trade paperbacks (Unmanned, Cycles, and One Small Step) it’s hard to agree with the positive reviews of this series. It is somewhat captivating, but only in the way that a train wreck, moving in slow motion, captivates a bystander. The artwork is quite good – very clean and simple. But the writing is not good.

This series is based on a single premise – and not the obvious one. Vaughn wants to show us that women can be as vulgar, petty, and dangerous as men. Every panel is filled with women behaving badly. You could (with minor alterations) plug men into the story in place of women and not lose a beat.

All of Vaughn’s characters speak with the same voice. Every one of them say “f---“ this and “f---“ that. Every character. Vaughn would defend his choice by saying that’s how people speak. Well, it isn’t. Certainly there are plenty of people who speak like that in the course of normal conversation, but not everyone.

But this complaint goes further than just a pile of expletives. Every character sounds the same. Their cadence is similar. Their word choice is similar. In short, there is no character in these characters.

Whatever Happened to Batman's Adventures?

After seeing a few episodes of the new The Batman series on Cartoon Network and reading the first few issues of the new DC animated-related series, I’m beginning to wonder about the Bats.

Something amazing happened over 10 years ago when the likes of Bruce Timm and company put together the Batman: The Animated Series for Warner Brothers. They found an impossible balance between an adult treatment of the character and a kid-oriented show. What these creators did was to break the mold of animated kids’ shows and develop a new template and a new high water mark.

I remember watching the first episode available for preview at the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention run by my friend Bruce Schwartz. Over the years, Bruce’s monthly convention has grown in stature and importance in the comic book and movie industry. He started with tables, graduated to guests, and finally to exclusive previews. The Batman episode was the first major preview I recall him showing. And what an impact it made. The artwork was beautiful. Batman was amazing. The action was incredible. The scene where Batman bludgeons Man-Bat was astonishingly violent considering what had gone before. Kevin Conroy’s Bruce Wayne voice was snickered at (a direct reason, I believe, for his modifying the voice in later episodes), but his Batman was eerie and disturbing. This was big and loud and yet very, very human.

It wasn’t the first plan for a return of Batman to the tube. After Hanna-Barbera’s contract for Justice League ended, the call went out for something different to be developed for the DC characters. Working at H-B at the time, I got the chance to see promotional scenes and storyboards for a new Justice League that used the best of the comics. The League was lean and tough, and Batman was modeled after Neil Adams’ take on the character. One particular scene was very moody and dark, showing the Dark Knight busting into a pool hall and cracking heads. Shadows were everywhere and a hanging lamp, knocked in the fracas, cast beams of spotlight-like light into the surrounding dark. Very cool looking stuff. Yet the version that surfaced turned out to be even better.

DC Comics followed quickly with a comic book tie-in that embodied not only the artistic look of the television series, but also its human sensibilities. There was pathos, human failings, and desire. We saw lust in a kids cartoon. We saw redemption for bad guys. We saw a man driven to criminal acts to preserve a loved one, and never really felt he was a criminal (compare the animated Mr. Freeze voiced incomparably by Michael Ansara to the clunky, foolish Mr. Freeze played by Ahnold – pulease!)

Each subsequent series maintained these sensibilities even as they moved forward with the characters and situations. Robin grew to Nightwing. A new Robin came onboard. Batgirl went from being a ditzy college girl to becoming an accomplished sidekick. Batman learned to rely on his “family”, in his own fashion. The stories rarely lacked cleverness and the occasional miscues in the art were easily forgiven, both in the animated series as well as in the comic book.
Batman Beyond came in and, while that used more action and destruction to power its episodes, there was still the human anchor. Bruce Wayne, old, unable to still kick it like the old days, yet still (and thankfully) voiced by Kevin Conroy, provided a necessary link to the old days. Wayne’s struggle, not so much to go on with his mission but to adapt to his changing role (something difficult for any aging patriarch), was as much a part of the show as Terry’s growth in his assuming the mantle.

With Cartoon Network’s The Batman, however, all of that is lost. The clock has been turned back. We see a young Bruce Wayne embarking on his newly established mission with all the verve and smart-alecky banter of Spider-Man. Nowhere do we see even a hint of the dark soul that started him on his original quest as a boy – the quest to become something that could end crime and, in a way, atone for his inability to save his parents.

The first episode I saw of The Batman highlighted, ironically, the story of the Man-Bat. We are treated to a mad scientist who has secretly used Wayne Foundation funds to pay for his experiments. Not experiments to help people or understand the animal kingdom (as in the original Batman Adventures), but to make the scientist, Langstrom, a powerful being that can rule the night. The beauty of the old show (and comic) was its ability to take old characters and make them fresh, to give them new origins with tragic, human elements. In this new series, the producers return to trite, old stories that leave the reader unmoved.

The comic book takes the animated episode as its cue and launches into a second Man-Bat story that simply echoes elements from the TV show. Gone is the pathos, the human elements that made Batman Adventures the best Batman stories ever produced, and some of the best comic book character stories ever told. The trend seems to be toward loud and explosive (perhaps to compete with video games?), but in the end all it will do is drive away viewers and readers. Batman Adventures is a classic and it endures. The new The Batman show and concomitant comic book is not, and quickly will be forgotten.

For more information about the monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention please visit:

Hits and Misses

Top of the Heap – November

Ultimate Spider-Man – continues to be well written and respectful of the original. There is almost always a sense of “what comes next?” about the title. Peter Parker is again a kid struggling in an adult world. A great read. And the artwork is better than that deformed Ramos garbage.

Savage Dragon – never-ending comic book smash style fun! You don’t get emotionally involved with these characters but you do have a lot of destructive fun. We have yet to find out the truth about the dragon, yet does anyone truly care. It is an auteur’s piece and should be celebrated for that fact alone.

She-Hulk – I love it. So, of course it’s being canceled. This story has a nice feel to it. There’s humor, some nice below-the-radar subplots, great art, good writing. All-in-all, nicely done. When it comes back in May it won’t be the same and it won’t be as good.

JLA – I enjoyed John Byrne’s short run on the book and I didn’t mind the introspective follow-up run that should have taken a reflective look at the first failures of these heroes rather than having them experience failure now and being devastated. Of course any failure these heroes suffer should affect them, especially when life is lost. They shouldn’t be inured to it, but they should by now have developed a philosophy about it. Casting the events in issues 101-106 in a flashback sequence would have helped make the run more realistic and they could have had one of the sidekicks or newer heroes (the new version of Firsestorm?) suffering his first loss instead. I look forward to Kurt Busiek’s eight issue run. Busiek plans, of all things, to do a comic book story: adventure, excitement, thrills. No politics, no social commentary, no posturing. Just good comics. Imagine that!

Daredevil – I totally hate Brian Michael Bendis. The more he writes the better he seems to get. I know for a fact that he’s taking at least one opportunity away from me to write a book for Marvel ;>) Still, his Daredevil – while occasionally suffering from verbosity – is an elegant piece of work that many issues ago redefined the character without tearing him down. Coupled with the stunning artwork of Alex Maleev, this is one of the best books extant.

JSA – I can’t remember the last time a team book has been done so well. With such disparate characters, this series could have become a hopeless jumble, but Geoff Johns and David Goyer have really kept this title humming. The stories take wild turns and keeps the reader guessing along the way. The usually good artwork helps, too. Get the earlier trades and then catch up with current issues. It’ll be worth it.

Goon – This is just a lot of weird comic book fun. Eric Powell is a genius. Nothing having to do with reality. Just plain gooey fun. Reminds me of the wild abandon in the old Madman and Flaming Carrot Comics. We need more of this and less posturing and pontificating.

Bottom of the Barrel – November

Marvel’s Marvel Age – I don’t like the entire line. I don’t think kids need or want “manga” style comics using the classic American characters. Sales for the FF and Spidey titles probably prove me wrong, but the Hulk and Team-Up titles back me up. Regardless, the best way to attract new, young readers is not to develop a new line of books (they’ve done that with mixed results!) but to gear a few of their mainstream titles toward younger readers. Today, the median age of readers is in the mid-20s. Comics used to be for pre-teens. There ought to be a few titles out there that can be directed toward that historical audience without turning away the current readership.

Batman Strikes! – What happened to stories in these animated Bat-books? For four series and about 150 issues we got good stories, not just cat-chasing-mouse cartoons. Characters had pathos, there was meaning to their actions. Man-Bat is a prime example. In the animated show (and in the pages of Batman Adventures), Kirk Langstrom is a well meaning scientist whose creation gets away from him. In Batman Strikes (and the concurrent “The Batman” animated series) Langstrom is a man set on gaining power. Where are the moral questions and the deeper decisions that some of these characters had to resolve? Victor Fries is another great example. Here is a man who appears evil, but is motivated by true love. Even when he is successful in rescuing his wife, circumstances for him into bitterness, and crime, again. This series ain’t “da bomb,” it’s just a bomb.

District X – gets a big Who Cares from me. There was no suspense in the story. Except for the mutant aspect of crime, there was nothing in the first six issues you haven’t seen on “NYPD Blue.”

The New X-Men (X-Men Academy) – Yawwwwnnnnn. The only thing of interest is at the end of the first arc when former New Mutant Rahne (now a teacher at the academy) does a little necking with a *gasp* student. All of the new students are non-descript. And, is it just me, or are mutant powers getting lamer.

Conan – Just couldn’t get into it.

Starjammers – Why did I buy this series? Somebody tell me!

Fantastic Four – World’s Greatest Comic my backside! Neither the mainstream title or Marvel Knights 4 is worth the paper it’s printed on ($2.99!). They are boring and devoid of character. Where are our heroes? Where’s the First Family of Comics? I don’t think even the Galactus run can help. Both are off my list, although I’ll probably get the Galactus story when it appears in trade about an hour after the last issue in the run is published.

Worth Watching

Fade From Grace and Ballad of Sleeping Beauty – Both titles from Beckett Comics. These are value priced, but loaded with good artwork and pretty good writing. They may be tough to come by in your comic shop but you should get the run as long as it lasts. In Fade, they deal with superpowers in a very human way. In Ballad they use fantasy and horror in a western motif without deconstructing iconic characters (à la Marvel’s Two Gun Kid).

Aquaman – I like the King of the Seven Seas, even more than I like Namor. But I never cared for his angry, bearded phase, and I certainly hate that water hand of his. Thankfully, it looks like the hand will be gone soon and (hopefully) a real hand will grow in its place (hey, why not? Arthur really is a mutant so stuff like that can happen). What’s interesting about this series is the fact that the title is taking some surprising turns, not just trying to stir up old Atlantean waters. As big as it was, the sinking of San Diego was a masterstroke in story telling. (What is it with the destruction of San Diego? It seems to be a favorite target among SF folk.) It opened up a whole new range of stories for the character. About the only thing I regret is that Aquaman was not included in the “Pain” issues of JLA. I mean, really, he’s got to be feeling some (undeserved) guilt for so much loss of life in his oceans.