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Banshee: The Wail Of The Banshee!/The Phalanx Covenant - Generation Next

featuring Stan Lee, Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza

(Art by Werner Roth, Dick Ayers, Joe Maduereira, Andy Kubert, Terry Austin, Dan Green, Matt Ryan and Mike Sellers)

Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 36.  In the first of these two stories we see the Banshee's first appearance as he confronts the X-Men and attempts to kidnap Professor X for mysterious reasons.  The second story, part of the X-Men crossover event 'The Phalanx Covenant', sees Banshee discovering that the X-Men have been replaced by duplicates and sets out to rescue the next generation of mutants from the techno-organic aliens known as the Phalanx.

Two of Stan Lee's most irritating habits as a writer are to introduce new heroes by having them fight existing heroes for spurious reasons and constant alliteration in his text.  Unfortunately both of these are prevalent in 'The Wail of the Banshee!'.  It's a pointless fluff story really, made all the more pointless by the fact that here we don't get to find out who's behind it all or the reasons Xavier is being kidnapped.

Much better is Lobdell and Nicieza's contribution to 'The Phalanx Covenant' crossover.  This was the era that originally got me into X-Men comics (in fact some of this book seemed so familiar that I wonder if I used to own the original issues back in the 90s) and I always had a particular fondness for the misfit teens of Generation X.  What I liked most about this story, however, was the fact that the major-league X-Men are all tied up elsewhere leaving semi-retired Banshee, novice Jubilee and former villains Emma Frost and Sabretooth to save the day.  I enjoy stories featuring underdog or mismatched teams and this is a perfect example of that.  Also, I'd forgotten just how creepy the Phalanx are and it adds almost an element of horror to this story, which already had overtones of 'Invasion of the Bodysnatchers'.

Let's be honest, Banshee is no-one's favourite X-Man, but this book serves to remind you that he is, nevertheless, an interesting one.

3 out of 5

 

Batman: Birth Of The Demon - Part 1

featuring Mike W. Barr and Dennis O'Neil

(Art by Jerry Bingham, Tom Grindberg, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano)

Part of the DC Graphic Novel Collection.  This book collects three stories; two full-length ones, 'Son of the Demon' and 'Bride of the Demon' featuring Batman's antagonist Ra's Al Ghul, as well as that character's very first appearance, 'Daughter of the Demon'.

Ra's Al Ghul is a very interesting Batman villain in that he actually has a great deal of respect for the 'Detective' as well as his own strict code of honour.  It makes him a more complex antagonist; something which is only accentuated by Batman's on and off love affair with Ra's' daughter Talia.  Having this book explore so much of that dynamic is by far its strongest element.

There's something of a James Bond vibe to these stories too; with Batman engaging in a bit of globe-trotting, infiltrating secret lairs and falling into the arms of a femme fatale.  Honestly, it's not my preferred style of Dark Knight story, but it is an interesting shift in genre that some may appreciate more than me.

3 out of 5

 

Batman: Featuring Two-Face And The Riddler

featuring Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Neil Gaiman, Alan Grant, Andrew Helfer and Mark Verheiden

(Art by Pat Broderick, Joe Giella, Dick Giordano, Sid Greene, Mike Hoffman, Bob Kane, Sam Keith, Bernie Mireault, Steve Mitchell, Kevin Nowlan, Charles Paris, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos, Howard Sherman, Dick Sprang, Frank Springer, Chris Sprouse and Matt Wagner)

Originally published in conjunction with the cinema release of Batman Forever (in which Two-Face and the Ridder are the main villains, in case you've not seen it), this book collects a range of stories featuring the titular villains ranging from their original appearances in the 1940s up to the darker stories of the 1980s.

Although they are very kitsch and crammed with awfully cheesy exposition dialogue, I was actually surprised to find myself enjoying the 1940s stories.  I think what made them so enjoyable was seeing the true origins of these two iconic villains and how they match up to legend that 70-odd years of comics has built for them.  I was, for instance, surprised to find that Two-Face predates the Riddler by a full seven years, debuting in 1941.  In that Two-Face story, brought to us by Batman's legendary co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane, we see that the villain was originally Harvey Kent (not Dent) and he failed to get reconstructive surgery because the only doctor who could have done it visited Europe and was interred in a Nazi concentration camp.

We then get a couple of Riddler stories from the 1960s, in which the villain struggles to overcome his psychological compulsion to give Batman clues to his crimes, before the anthology jumps ahead to 1989. 

It was in the 80s that Batman comics began to develop the dark tone that they're known for today and here we get a much darker look at the origins of not only the two main villains of this book, but also the Penguin.  These linked stories, written masterfully by Gaiman, Grant and Verheiden, explore the psychology of the villains by following a documentary film crew's attempts to film the otherwise unseen side of them.  I think my favourite story of the whole book was 'When Is A Door: The Secret Origin of The Riddler', written by Neil Gaiman.  Here The Riddler is a somewhat tragic figure, whom the filmmakers don't even recognise as a real supervillain and who is struggling to come to terms with the darker world he's living in.  Gaimain brilliantly gives us exposition of how a character in-universe is coping with the way in which Batman stories began delving to darker and more violent depths, with The Riddler getting a fantastic monologue in which he remembers the days when the supervillain life was fun ("No one ever hurt anybody.  Not really.") and laments the change in the world ("The Joker's killing people, for God's sake!  Did I miss something?").

Two-Face, whose 1941 appearance kicked off this book, rounds out the stories with one from 1990 in which we flashback to the days when he was D.A. Harvey Dent and we learn that his split-personality psychosis had begun to manifest far before the courtroom acid attack left him scarred.

Overall, this book is a great bit of exploration of the title villains, showing us how they developed over time both in-universe and out.  It is, in fact, far more entertaining than 'Batman Forever' was.  And it has an introduction written by Mark 'The Joker' Hamill too.

4 out of 5

 

Batman In The Sixties

featuring Bill Finger, John Broome, Gardner Fox, Bob Kanigher, E. Nelson Bridwell, Mike Friedrich and Frank Robbins

(Art by Dick Sprang, Charles Paris, Sheldon Moldoff, Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, Sid Greene, Chic Stone, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano)

Seventeen stories culled from across the 1960s, showing the effects on the Dark Knight of things like the advent of the iconic TV series and the changes in American society across the decade.

I couldn't help comparing this book to 'The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told' (reviewed here), which featured a range of Batman stories from across the first five decades of the Caped Crusader's adventures.  Where that book felt like an almost random collection of stories, this book focusing just on the 60s feels much more coherent.  That's not to say that there's any overarching stories or themes, but you nevertheless get a genuine sense of the development of Batman's world a bit at a time.  This book begins with the cheesy and fairly shallow style of the early Batman stories (not to mention a rare appearance by Betty Kane, the original Batgirl) and then moves forward through the more complex and extravagant stories of the TV series era ('66 to '68), before ending in the more mature style that would kick off the somewhat bleaker 1970s.  Throughout the book are short interludes explaining some of the changes of the times which make this feel like a more interesting exploration of the development of the character in the context of the real world.

Long-time Bat-fans will be pleased to see familiar faces like the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Scarecrow and Catwoman, as well as the very first appearances of iconic villains like Clayface and Poison Ivy.  For me, however, it was what we see of Batgirl that I found really interesting.  As mentioned above, we get to see the two-dimensional Betty Kane version whose only motivation is that she fancies Robin, but we also get a couple of stories starring the far more iconic Barbara Gordon version of Batgirl.  It's safe to say that a combination of her more interesting character motivation and the women's-lib mentality of the 60s combine to make her a very strong character in her own right, easily standing shoulder to shoulder with Batman himself.  Unfortunately the writers do still feel the unfortunate need to refer to her as a 'chick' and, in one nauseating panel, as the 'dominoed daredoll'.

In short, if you like your Batman gritty and modern, then this is not the book for you.  However, if you're interested in the development of the character and have warm nostaglic feelings towards Adam West, then it might be worth checking out.

3 out of 5

 

Batman: The Arkham Saga Omnibus

featuring Adam Beechen, Doug Wagner, Frank Hannah, Tim Seeley, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Derek Fridolfs, Marly Halpern-Graser, Paul Crocker, Sefton Hill, Karen Traviss and Peter J. Tomasi

(Art by Christian Duce, Vincente Cifuentes, Federico Dallocchio, Tom Derenick, Victor Drujiniu, Omar Francia, Richard Ortiz, Matthew Clark, Wade von Grawbadger, Carlos D'Anda, Sean Parsons, Derek Fridolfs, Dustin Nguyen, Ben Herrera, Ted Naifeh, Roger Robinson, Adam Archer, Al Barrionuevo, Michel Lacombe, Jimbo Salago, Jeffrey Huet, Jason Shawn Alexander, Mike S. Miller, Brian Ching, Livesay, Simon Coleby, Bruno Redondo, Cliff Rathburn, Santi Casas, Pete Woods, Juan Jose Ryp, Jorge Jimenez, Darick Robertson, Richard P. Clarke, Peter Nguyen, Craig Yeung, David Lopez, Mico Suayan, Jheremy Raapack, Eric Nguyen, Davide Fabbri, Roccardo Burchielli, Tony Shasteen, Beni Lobel, Viktor Bogdanovic, Art Thibert, Ig Guara, Julio Ferreira, Robson Rocha, Guillermo Ortego, Richard Friend, Daniel Henriques, Stephen Segovia, Alisson Borges and Dexter Soy)

An absolutely immense omnibus collecting all of the comics and graphic novels set in the world of the Arkham series of computer games.  Beginning with a prelude to 'Arkham Origins' which sees an inexperienced Batman still finding his crimefighting feet, continuing on through the events of 'Arkham Asylum' and 'Arkham City', before culminating in stories that lead directly into the plot of 'Arkham Knight'.

I'm a big fan of the so-called Arkhamverse, which gives us a gritty and realistic take on the Batman mythos, whilst still managing honour all of the character's real-world history, not matter how silly (Calendar Man makes an appearance, for instance).  So, I was very keen to read more stories set in this particular take on Gotham, as well as getting some background to the games I love (I've not played 'Arkham Knight' yet, so I can't comment on the negative reviews it got).

As you can imagine from a collection of dozens of stories from twelve different writers, this is a real mixed bag in terms of quality.  There are some stories that almost seem like vanity pieces on the parts of the writers but there are some, mainly by Paul Dini (who also wrote for awesome 'Batman: The Animated Series' in the 90s), which genuinely feel like they inform the main stories of the actual games.  There are also a few, such as one of Karen Traviss' contributions, which work as self-contained stories within themselves.  However, there's also a great deal of pointless or unremarkable stories too, the worst of which is the 'Arkham Origins' prelude, which attempts to be a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story.  I'd never encountered a CYOA graphic novel before and seeing how unwieldy and unsatisfying it is to read here, I can understand why.

The varied quality of the stories aside, there are two big problems with this omnibus that are inherently linked to one another.  The first and biggest problem is that this book doesn't include actual adaptions of the games.  So the main plotlines that threat the Arkhamverse together are absent, meaning we get lead-ins and tie-ins to stories that are told elsewhere, leaving this book feeling like it's got great big holes in it.  The second problem is that not all of the stories here have been presented in chronological order, so any sense of narrative flow, already disrupted by the lack of the games' stories, is spoiled by random jumps in timeframe.  It really wouldn't have killed anyone just to edit the stories into order.

Overall this is an enjoyable expansion of the lore of the Arkham games but is spoiled a great deal by the big gaps and jumps in its narrative.

3 out of 5

 

Black Panther: The Black Panther/See Wakanda And Die

featuring Stan Lee and Jason Aaron

(Art by Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Jefte Palo)

Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 35.  These two stories feature the character's first appearance, confronting the Fantastic Four, and also tell of the Panther's resistance to the Skrull invasion of Wakanda, alongside his wife Storm.

Stan Lee's favourite trick when introducing a new hero was to have them fight an existing hero (or team of heroes), usually either as part of a misunderstanding or sometimes for no particularly good reason at all.  Unfortunately the first story here falls into the latter catagory, with T'Challa inviting the FF to Wakanda and then attacking them more or less just because he can.  It's stupid and the more times I read this exact set-up by Lee, the more it grows to irritate me (along with the alliteration he loved so much).  Things do get better when the Panther and the FF team-up to fight the 'Master of Sound', Klaw (so brilliantly played by the great Andy Serkis in the MCU).

For all my issues with its story, I have to give Lee and Kirby full credit for their concept with T'Challa and Wakanda.  I was worried that, with modern eyes and liberal sensibilities, the Panther's earliest incarnation would be an awkward reminder of African stereotypes begun in the 19th Century.  I was surprised that the T'Challa we know now, the brilliant, wealthy and technologically savvy national leader, is exactly how he appears for the first time.  At a time when America was struggling to resolve its civil rights issues (something that is still sadly ongoing) these two brilliant white guys introduce a black character to mainstream comics who is the pinnacle of humanity.  Bravo gentlemen.

The second story here, by Aaron, is a much more solidly plotted one, with the Skrulls attempting a takeover of Wakanda using all of the technology and cunning which let them overwhelm much of the rest of Earth.  However, they have underestimated the technological advancement, the courage and the foresight of Wakanda and its rulers, Black Panther and Storm.

However, despite being more convincingly plotted that Lee's story, there's nothing really groundbreaking on offer here.  It's a fun repelling insurmountable odds story, but not much more than that.  Palo's art is pretty great though.

Overall; some good, some bad, which levels out at middling.

3 out of 5

 

Black Widow: The Crimson Dynamo Strikes/Beware The Black Widow/Homecoming

featuring Stan Lee, N. Korok and Richard K. Morgan

(Art by Don Heck, John Romita Sr., Jim Mooney, Bill Sienkiewicz and Goran Parlov)

Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 27, collecting three stories of the Soviet spy-turned-Avenger.  The first features the Black Widow's first appearance, as a Russian femme fatale sent to assassinate Tony Stark.  The second story has Natasha Romanov using an encounter with Spider-Man to overhaul her image and launch her new career as a costumed crimefighter.  The final story takes the retired Natasha back to her roots, as she discovers the secrets of the Soviet spy programme that trained her.

The first two stories here are both very much of their time.  The first has Black Widow as little more than the token evil-commie-of-the-week but is a perfectly enjoyable Cold War era Iron Man story.  The second one is a bit sillier, with Natasha deciding to attack Spider-Man just to see what his powers are and find out if she can match them.  That wouldn't be so bad if she was still a villain at this point, but this is supposed to be her turning over a new leaf, so attacking another superhero feels pretty weird.  Full credit to Stan Lee's honesty however (well, here at least), because he includes a text box that openly admits this whole encounter has just been a glorified advert for Black Widow's own soon-to-be-published solo adventures.

The third part of this book is pure brilliance though.  Morgan's 'Homecoming' is an espionage thriller in the style of the Bourne films but with a hard-as-nails femme fatale in the lead role.  I loved that the author worked the theme of women's daily struggles against misogyny into the overall narrative of Natasha's struggles against a group of shadowy assassins.  It's also a very personal tale for the character where she has to explore where her moral limits are after a mixed life as both an assassin and a superhero.  It culminates in her learning that everything she thought she knew about her past, from her childhood to her defection, has been a lie.  That could easily have come across as cliche, but both the writing and the artwork do a brilliant job of portraying Natasha's sense of horror and betrayal.

The book is definitely worth reading just for 'Homecoming', but you might find it interesting to see how the character has developed since her earlier appearances too.

4 out of 5