Hugh Likes Comics: Batman Damned

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Batman Damned #1
Written by Brian Azzarello
Drawn by Lee Bermejo
Published by DC Comics


The Skinny: It’s not bat-shaped. Disappointing.

“Batman Damned” is an absolutely gorgeous perfect-bound comic presenting some high test Azzarello nonsense. After an as-yet unseen grueling fight in which he has sustained a critical injury, Batman wakes to find himself in the care of smart-ass magician John Constantine. His wounds are healed, but he has no memory of the events, and someone has killed the Joker. Batman goes searching or answers, but he may not like what he finds.
Published under the DC Black Label imprint, this oversized and perfect bound comic is for mature audiences, and it is reflected in the writing and the art. Batman’s brush with death leaves him shaken and out of sorts, and sparks recollections of his father’s past, which is of course more sinister and tawdry than previous incarnations. He is also having dreams of a mysterious, demonic girl, leading to a crisis of faith for Batman. Did he break his one rule? Did he kill? And did he really make it out of the river himself?
Lee Bermejo’s art carries the weight in this comic. Gotham is an atmospheric watercolor hellscape that has never seemed more sinister.Angles are subtly off. Building loom. it’s all very engaging. Azzarello’s story is almost an annoyance by comparison. Narrated by Constantine in a slew of gothy cliches about angels and devils, the nature of redemption, blah, blah blah. It would all flow together nicely if the central figure weren’t Batman, and we weren’t seeing him from the outside. Batman’s central trait, his real super-power if you will, is that he’s prepared for whatever situation he finds himself in. This book where he fumbles around in madness feels off. Consider last year’s DC Metal, in which Batman kidnaps the space devil, albeit in a diminutive form, in order to try and travel back in time. This is a very different take on the character, and what we get of him is kind of thin and insubstantial. Azzarello lets the reader’s preconceived notions do a lot of the heavy lifting here.
In the end, in spite of the high quality production values, “Batman Damned” will be best known for its controversial nudity. In one scene, upon returning to the Batcave shaken and distraught, Batman removes his costume, only to have a vision of it loom over his nude form. It’s a nicely done scene, but Bermejo neglects to fully shadow in Batman’s crotch in one panel, giving the reader a semi-obscured view of his genitals. Uproar and controversy has already ensued, and digital versions have already updated to obscure his bat-junk, as will future printings. This makes the comic a bit of a collector’s item.
In the end, this is an absolutely gorgeous illustrated Batman story, although the story itself feels a bit lacking. You can find it at your local comics shop, or digitally from Comixology.


Hugh Likes Comics: The Sandman Universe

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The Sandman Universe #1
Story by Neil Gaiman
Written by Simon Spurier, Nalo Hopkinson, Kat Howard, and Dan Watters
Drawn by Bilquis Evely, Tom Fowler, Dominike “Domo” Stanton, Max Fiumara, and Sebastian Fiumara
Colors by Mat Lopes
Letters by Simon Bowland
Published by Vertigo


The Skinny – Vertigo returns to The Dreaming to introduce a quartet of Gaiman-inspired comics.

“The Sandman” was one of those pieces of culture that came into my life right when I needed it to. I read it in my early twenties, after it had ended, and had been collected into trade paperbacks. Ultimately a story about storytelling, it was very different from DC’s four-color Superhero offerings, even though it shared a setting, or at least a common world.
The Sandman Universe #1 brings back that type of storytelling with a fresh start. Essentially, this serves as a reboot and introduction to four Vertigo books all reaching back to Gaiman’s seminal ’90’s work.
The current incarnation of Dream is missing (following the events of DC’s Metal event) and dream raven Matthew heads out to the mortal realm to find him. Along the way encounters various other stories without being much involved in them. The stories as presented are a bit thin, but feel very authentic to the original Sandman and Vertigo comics, and they’re gorgeous to look at. Mat Lopes’s coloring ties them all together, and they have that distinct soft palate that set Vertigo apart from its four-color contemporaries.
The Sandman Universe #1 is a small aperitif after so many years away from these stories, but it’s a tease for some series that do have the potential to reignite that particular spark. You can take a look for yourself at your local comics shop, or digitally from Comixology.

Hugh Likes Comics: Plastic Man

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Plastic Man #1
Written by Gail Simone
Drawn by Adriana Melo
Colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettered by Simon Bowland
Published by DC Comics


The Skinny: Simone and Melo breathe new life into a Golden Age hero.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect opening Plastic Man #1. The character is one of those ones that has been bouncing around the DC Universe forever, but that I haven’t read much of. Purchased under one of DC’s buyouts of their rivals after the end of the first great wave of superheroes, he faded into their ever-growing C-list bench for me, although he did go on to have his own cartoon in the 70’s.
The story is still very golden age, but this remixed origin has some nice modern touches. Eel O’Brian was a safecracker until a job in a mysterious chemical factory left him shot, doused with something caustic, and left for dead by the rest of his gang. But in the classic tradition, what should have killed him in fact gave him super-powers, in this case, the ability to stretch and change his shape. But coming back from the dead with powers just leads him to a whole new set of problems as he tries to piece together what has happened to him.
Simone (Deadpool, Domino) is perhaps the best possible choice for a book like this. Her mastery of the different story elements lends a subtlety that is indicative of her style. She invokes crime elements without being salacious, even with a scene set in a Justice League-themed gentlemen’s club. She invokes pathos without being schmaltzy, and the humor of the character doesn’t quite cross the line into goofy. She nails the balance. Her Plastic Man is a criminal with a conscience, a hero with a healthy distrust of the forces of law and order, and a goofball struggling to stay this side of sane. It’s territory she’s explored before, and she hits all the markers beautifully.
Melo’s art and Fitzpatrick’s colors are also well suited. Melo’s expressions are spot on, and she keeps up with Simone beat for beat. Fitzpatrick’s colors do just as much work, with characters in too-bright suits popping against the brown and gray of a crime-ridden urban blight. It’s all delicately done, and I want to see where this team takes them in future issues.
Plastic Man #1 is a modern-day reinvention of some classic comic book characters and tropes, and it’s a heck of a good time. You can find it on Comixology, or at your local comics shop.

Hugh Likes Movies: Gotham By Gaslight

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Batman: Gotham By Gaslight
Produced by DC Entertainment
Directed by Sam Liu

Batman GBGL

The Skinny: The graphic reimagining of the Batman mythos in the 19th century pits the Dark Knight against Jack the Ripper.

Superhero movies by their nature feature alternate versions of comic book characters. They compress plots that run for moths or years into digestible stories that audiences can enjoy in only an hour or two, without having to rely on previous knowledge of the hero’s adventures. “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight,” the latest direct-to-DVD animated feature from DC Comics, takes this truism a step further.
The dark but lushly animated film reimagines Batman’s one-man war against crime as taking place in the 19th Century, with him taking on none other than Jack the Ripper himself. In fact, the movie spends a lot more time on the case than with the origins of the character, which makes for a much darker and more explicit take on Batman’s world.
The overall effect is more gothic than steampunk, although most of the fight sequences take place on a burning airship, a burning ferris wheel, and a slaughterhouse that, inexplicably, hasn’t caught fire. The story is pretty much what one would expect from a Batman vs. Jack the Ripper story, and it hits all the broad points you would expect well enough. There are a few plot twists fans who haven’t read the original graphic novel might not see coming, but the story is mostly concerned with showing how these pulp characters fit into a slightly more antiquated Gotham City.
I will say that I felt the movie leans a bit too heavily on the Ripper-ology. The viewer is invited along with a few very nasty killings, and we get a good dose of Jack’s vitriol in the form of villain monologue. It all feels a bit voyeuristic, and lands on the other side of good taste in parts. This certainly isn’t the next film to go to after your child finishes watching Lego Batman.
Although this superhero isn’t for kids, older teens and adult Bat-fans may find something to like in this risqué and violent alternate take on the character and his world.

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Hugh Likes Comics: New Super-Man

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New Super-Man #1
Written by Gene Luen Yang
Penciled by Viktor Bogdanovic
Published by DC Comics
Superman is a cultural icon that carries a lot of cultural baggage.  A staunch defender of Truth, Justice, and The American Way, DC Comics has often struggled against the massive amount of inertia this creates for a character.  Superman as a flawless, heroic figure who rescues kittens from trees and never steps a toe out of line becomes dated, boring, and even corny.  But attempts to ‘modernize’ the character can likewise be criticized as feeling forced, too dark, or just plain not fun.  Which is why I find Gene Luen Yang and Viktor Bogdanovic’s “New Super-Man” so interesting.
The eponymous character isn’t Clark Kent at all, but Kong Kenan, the teenage son of a Shanghai mechanic.  Kong isn’t quite the heroic figure we’ve come to expect.  He’s a downright selfish, arrogant bully.  But when a video of him standing up to a super-villain goes viral, he’s recruited by a secretive government ministry to become a superhero.
The story itself is a bit rushed in the first issue, but Yang lays down a lot of groundwork for future stories.  Mostly we get a character sketch of Kong, but the Shanghai he inhabits feels vibrant and authentic in a way that seems like a step forward for comics, even if it is literally the least they could do.  Bogdanovich’s expressive, detailed art is outstanding, and really keeps the otherwise basic origin story moving along.  He’s helped by gorgeous, eye-catching coloring by Hi-Fi.
“New Super-Man #1” is a somewhat cookie-cutter first act of a super-hero origin story, but there are enough neat twists to get me looking forward to where the story goes next.  You can pick it up now from Comixology or your local comics shop.

Hugh Likes Comics: Superman Birthright

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Superman Brithright
Written by Mark Waid
Drawn by Lenil Francis Yu
Published by DC Comics
The retelling of a superhero’s origin story really only works if the writer and artist truly ‘get’ the character.  Extraneous details can weigh the character down, and updated elements can seem forced.  Fortunately, that isn’t the case with “Superman Birthright,” Mark Waid and Lenil Francis Yu’s take on the origin of the Man of Steel.
Originally published in 2003, this graphic novel served as an inspiration for 2013’s “Man of Steel” film, but don’t hold that against it.  This comic soars where the movie feels heavy and grim.
The comic starts out much like the film, with Clark Kent traveling around the world looking for a sense of identity.  Clark feels that his powers separate him from humanity, and he looks for a way to both live among humans and use his powers to do good.  With the help of his parents, he prepares his alter-ego and takes a job at the Daily Planet in Metropolis.  As he struggles to establish himself both as a journalist and a superhero, he quickly comes into conflict with the brilliant but twisted Lex Luthor.  This is the heart of the story, and it is handled masterfully.  This version of Lex is an astro-biologist exhaustedly hunting for intelligent alien life.  Clark briefly knew Lex when they were teenagers.  Clark was his only friend when Lex’s prodigious intellect, and accompanying ego, separated him from his classmates.
The two meet again, and their meeting as adults goes just as poorly.  Lex is an exceptional man looking for an equal among the stars, but Superman is disgusted by his actions.  This is a great modernization of the basic plot of a Superman comic, and is typical of Waid’s treatment of the characters and their motivations.
Motivation is the key to “Birthright.”  The reader knows what Superman does.  This retelling cements why he does it, and how the people of Metropolis react to it.  Fear of the unknown, both ‘out there’ and inside ourselves is a central theme.  How the characters each react to it is what makes them special.
Yu’s designs are also great, and the comic does a great job of making these seventy year old icons breathe in a modern context.
“Superman Birthright” is available as a graphic novel from Amazon, Comixology, or your local comics shop.