Monday, March 31, 2014

episode 026: exit the world

in this week's episode we have a change of pace with an interview with cartoonist charles forsman (teotfw, celebrated summer) conducted by joey and our resident curmudgeon/columnist shawn starr (you get to finally hear his voice!). topics discussed include the origins of his publishing outfit oily comics, what he learned at ccs, the influence of chester brown, and why this is one of the best movies ever, and much more.

music by speedy ortiz


Friday, March 28, 2014

1987 and all that 025: this is it

by Matt Derman

Dakota North #5 (Marvel)
By Martha Thomases, Tony Salmons, Max Scheele, and John Morrelli

Before I properly get into the comics criticism, a bit of quick housekeeping. This will be the final installment of “1987 And All That” to appear here on The Chemical Box. As they explained in Episode 24 a couple weeks back, Joey and Alec have decided to stop with written content on the site, so I’ll be wishing them both well in all their future endeavors, and transporting this column over to the good folks at Comics Should Be Good. So look for more 1987 goodness over on that site starting next month.

For my last Chemical Box piece, I figured it’d be appropriate to go with the last issue of a series, and lucky for me 'Dakota North' #5 was not only the title’s final issue, but also the only one published in 1987, coming in just under the wire with a February cover date.  I’m not really familiar with the book or the content of it's first four issues, but writer Martha Thomases gets a lot of credit for filling this final chapter with fairly seamless exposition. There are several characters who only know some of the history and/or only understand part of the present goings-on, so a there are a lot of explanations in the dialogue, but few if any fall into the trap of having one character tell another something they both already know.  Though some of the finer details of what happened before aren’t covered, the long and short of the situation is this: Dakota North, her younger brother Ricky, and her cop friend/love interest Amos have been kidnapped by the evil Sheik Ibn Bheik because he wants to steal the pen full of nerve gas that Ricky has concealed somewhere on his body. Ibn Bheik is working with another foe of Dakota’s named Cleo, though the exact significance of that isn't really delved into. Dakota and company have to break free of Ibn Bheik’s grasp before he can find out where Ricky is hiding the pen, while at the same time Dakota and Ricky’s father S.J. tries to use what is clearly his own romantic history with Cleo to save his kids from that side of the conflict. It sounds a little convoluted when I write it all out like that, but in practice it boils down to the good guys escaping the bad guys in a classic kidnapping scenario. The heroes are literally tied to chairs with ropes on the very first page. It could not be more straightforward.

Unfortunately, the same simplicity that makes this story so easy to understand also prevents it from ever feeling significant or worth any real emotional engagement or investment. To be fair, perhaps I’d have more of a reason to care if I didn't come in four issues deep. But within the pages of this particular issue, nobody in the cast stands out as especially interesting or three-dimensional, and the action is too silly and bogged down with text to ever truly excite. The stakes also don’t feel all that high, in no small part because many of the key players seem to take everything as a joke. Ricky, the young man who’s actually responsible for the potentially devastating nerve gas pen, is more interested in watching cartoons than getting away from his kidnappers or keeping the nerve gas out of their hands. And for a primary antagonist, Ibn Bheik is too much a passive spectator. He spends a lot of the issue with a wide, dumb grin on his face while watching his pet bird get bested in combat by Dakota, who subsequently beats up Ibn Bheik and all of his lackeys with ease before getting away. Had he been a more active participant, actually pursuing his wicked agenda instead of just talking about it from a distance, Ibn Bheik might have added some fear or urgency to the narrative. As it is, he’s more of a clown, just a large, inept doofus for Dakota to trounce. He even causes his own demise in the end, when one of his henchmen manages to steal the nerve gas pen from Ricky, but then decides to use the pen to take control of Ibn Bheik’s criminal operation. The Sheik and his minion fight over the device and it breaks, exposing only the room full of villains to the instantly fatal gas. From start to finish, Ibn Bheik is the least threatening, least serious baddie he can be.

Along the same lines, Dakota North makes for quite the grating hero. She’s not entirely unsympathetic, but there doesn't appear to be any effort spent toward making her all that likable either. She’s abrasively snarky, and not in a good-humored way, but instead motivated by her constant impatience with others and complete, almost arrogant confidence in herself. I don’t mind having a tough, brave, no-nonsense lead character, but there has to be a balance, because if all of the hero’s lines are aggressive, insulting, and mean, it becomes progressively harder to root for them. I don’t know if Dakota is quite that bad, but she’s right on the border, taking herself way too seriously and coming across as cold and callous rather than merely focused. When she discovers the villains’ dead bodies at the end of the issue, her reaction is detached and stiffly sarcastic, like she’s neither happy nor sad that her enemies died, because she thought so little of them to begin with. That’s too harsh and angry a personality for me to understand or empathize with, meaning Dakota never fully has me in her corner.

Her father S.J. is troublesome in the same way. He’s clearly a devoted dad, willing to do anything to save his kids, and that I like. But he’s always so fired up, ever the cantankerous old man, with no moments of calm or thoughtfulness in between. He’s turned up to eleven, in an incessant state of flustered fury, and it makes him into a caricature instead of a real character. I suppose that’s true of most of the cast actually. They’re all too broad for anyone to be believable, but the story itself isn't nearly as wacky as the characters. While the narrative wants to be dramatic action-adventure, the people in it behave more like the ensemble of a goofball slapstick comedy, and those two worlds never merge satisfactorily.

By far the most jarring and legitimately amusing moment in the issue came at the very, very end, not even in the last panel but underneath it. After ending on a bit of a cliffhanger, the issue closes with the following sentence: “This is where we usually put the blurb for the next issue, if there was a next issue, but there isn't.” That’s as impressive as it is obnoxious, bold in it's honesty but aggravating in its suddenness. The story doesn't end, does not even attempt to tie up all of its loose ends, but then the series unapologetically crashes to a halt anyway. I assume this is a case where the cancellation order came in after the script for this issue was already done, or close enough to done that trying to cram in a complete conclusion would have been worse than the ending they went with. Whatever the external circumstances though, that final sentence certainly comes out of nowhere in the issue itself. I admire the creators’ willingness to end in such a surprising, possibly upsetting way, and the brazenness with which they do it. If you’re going to wrap up a series in the middle of the story, might as well be as transparent about it as possible.

Most of the time, if I read a comic this void of meaty material, it irks me strongly for having wasted my time, but 'Dakota North' #5 isn't even bad enough to illicit that powerful a response. It is so empty and silly that to feel any real anger toward it would be more emotional energy on my part than it’s worth. What I do feel is more akin to pity, like, “Poor little comic book, couldn't even figure out its voice before suffering an untimely demise.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

episode 025: take this bottle

alec and joey discuss zero #6 by ales kot and vanesa del ray, truth is fragmentary by gabrielle bell, it never happened again by sam alden, satellite sam #1-6 by matt fraction and howard chaykin, secret avengers #1 by ales kot and michael walsh, and alec gives his way late review of harmony korine's film spring breakers.

music by faith no more


Saturday, March 15, 2014

episode 024: controlled substance

in this episode alec and joey take a look back at heavy liquid by paul pope, discuss moon knight #1 by warren ellis and declan shalvey, jupiter's legacy #4 by mark millar and frank quitely, starlight #1 by mark millar and goran parlov, wicked chicken queen by sam alden, real rap by benjamin urkowitz, and talk about what's going on with the website.

music by crystal castles


Monday, March 10, 2014

diary of a guttersnipe 03/10/2014: tardiness is a young man's game


The Shaolin Cowboy #1-4 (Dark Horse)
by Geoff Darrow, Dave Stewart

One of the major problems i had with the previous issues of 'Shaolin Cowboy' was Darrow’s proclivity to put words everywhere, with needless amounts of dialogue on top of needless amounts of dialogue. In the newest volume, Darrow pushes away all of the needless exposition in the first issue fairly quickly, and then goes on a three and a half issue wordless fight sequence between the Shaolin Cowboy and a roaming naked mob of zombies which cross his path. Where are these zombies from? Fuck if i know. That therein lies the beauty of this latest volume, because it does not matter at all. They’re there and for nearly sixty pages (and more than a dozen double page spreads), Darrow gleefully illustrates the undead mobs disembowelment at the hands (or a pole which connects two chainsaws) of his titular character.

*stray observations
.This series seems almost like a throwdown with James Stokoe on the most dicks in an obsessively illustrated comic.
. All of Darrow’s male zombies seem to be uncircumcised. Found that worth pointing out.

Sex Criminals #4 (Image)
by Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky

I still don’t really understand the mass praise for this book. The writing and artwork are fine even funny at times, but it being hailed as a top ten work just does not compute. Maybe it's a continuation of the praising of basic competence which has prevailed the past few years best of lists. Where Mark Waid’s 'Daredevil' or BKV/Staples' 'Saga' are put up on the shoulders of the masses and raised to a pantheon that only those who write B+ works aspire to inhabit.

Anyways, I guess jokes about butt stuff are much funnier than i ever thought.

a (mildly tweaked) reprint
“When you roll up on us, you better make sure we is dead – cause Mayor or not, we gonna roll back up on your punk ass!!!” 

Gangsta Rap Posse #1-2 (Traditional)
by Benjamin Marra

On a cursory glance, 'Gangsta Rap Posse' reads like the scrawling of a twelve year old who watched too many NWA interviews and music videos, but ultimately it is so much more than that. Operating both as an artistic reaction to the inherent silliness of the more manufactured aspects of Gangsta Rap (because as many cops as Ice Cube claims to kill, it’s 2014 and he works for TBS now) and a love letter to the the genre; Marra walks the fine line between farce and sincerity. 'Gangsta Rap Posse' revolves around a prominent Los Angeles 'Gangsta Rap' group as they make their way across the city towards their newest album release party, and as one would assume, depravity runs rampant over the ensuing twenty-two pages.

This book isn't a mad dash across town though, Marra allows the Posse to explore the city. To let the work breathe if you will. Taking breaks to shoot up a Neo-Nazi party, and prove who the real "Master Race" is, foil an assassination plot set forth by the mayor over the Posse releasing a sex tape "G.R.P. (Gang Bangs Mrs. Mayor)", and settling the issue of copyright infringement over a balcony window. 'Gangsta Rap Posse' exists for these digressions, the plot is irrelevant really, except as a pretense for these moments.

It's in these cutaways that Marra is able to weave in historical Rap events; creating a depth one wouldn't expect from a book with the title 'Gangsta Rap Posse'. Harold Smithsonian (George Clinton) and Snoozy Koblins (Bootsy Collins) of the Funk Congress International (Parliament-Funkadelic) attempting to assassinate the Gangsta Rap Posse over sampling, is a controversy which has plagued Hip-Hop since its formation (entire albums have been created with sampled beats). When the Posse holds Harold Smithsonian out a window and forces him to sign over the rights to his music, Marra is referencing Suge Knight's ("supposed") acquisition of Vanilla Ice "Ice Ice Baby" royalties, an event which lead directly to the formation of Death Row Records and the birth of Gangsta Rap.

As Tucker Stone pointed out, Marra's greatest artistic strength is his ability to make his characters act. Subtle gestures like the cocking of the Mayor's neck after being corrected for going on a racist tangent, the childlike shame on the Mayor's face when talking about his wife's sex tape, tell so much more about the character than any exposition dump ever could. In addition to facial gestures, Marra plays with the stiffness of his lines to give an additional dimension of character to his figures. While the Posse and members of Funk Congress International are depicted with a loose swagger, the Police are posed almost as mannequins, a subtle and effective way of differentiating the two groups and their personalities.

This book would have failed if it was merely an exercise in irony, a send off to 70's Blaxploitation films with Gangsta Rap archetypes swapped in for "Dolemite". An interesting elevator pitch, but not much more than that. Instead 'Gangsta Rap Posse' takes this simple idea and builds on it. Adding tidbits of Hip-Hop history and controversy, giving the work a depth that allows it to rise above simple parody. 'Gangsta Rap Posse' delivers on it's title, but through Marra's art and reverence for the genre, does much more.

link dump

Off the bat, a podcast reunion of sorts for the Matinee Idles which was a movie podcast which featured The Chemical Box's very own Joey Aulisio and Alec Berry.

Speaking of Alec Berry, he's been rather prolific of late with his take on 'Ms. Marvel' #1, 'Celebrated Summer', 'Number' #1, and 'Moon Knight' #1. He also started some kind of essay publishing site called ByLine and a new podcast that he wisely abandoned after a week or so. Alec and Joey did a Best Of episode in there somewhere too.

Tucker Stone interviews Julia GfrorerGfrorer is an supremely under-appreciated artist in the art-comics scene. With the release of 'Black Is The Color', this issue seems to be starting to change. Following the success of her $5 postcards (I got one of them. It was a rabbit), she is offering some affordable commissions right now.

Newly translated Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot titled 'La Poubelle de la Place Vendome'.
I keep finding scans of 'COPRA' online and it keeps bumming me out.

A Dash Shaw lecture which took place at the California College of the Arts. I saw Shaw give a very similar lecture at TCAF, it was very insightful. Also, Shaw announced a new mini-comic coming out from Fanta later this year called 'Cosplayer' which i’m excited about.

Michael DeForge’s 'Kid Mafia' was collected recently by Secret Headquarters, or at least the first three issues. That's one of my favorite DeForge comics, and largely only avaliable from him at conventions, so a collection should be a good way to get the work out there.

I read this Vladimir Nabokov interview with the Paris Review shortly before the release of the Alan Moore series of essays in the form of answers “interview” which recently came out. It’s weird, but Nabokov shit talks for almost the entirety of that interview in a way that i feel Moore wishes he could.

I watched every Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee last month. The Chris Rock one was probably the stand out, but they’re all pretty great. As an aside, one of my ex-managers met Chris Rock when he was shooting a scene at his work and i guess every time Rock ran into him, he kept asking him about his kids and if he was gonna go see "Madagascar 2" when it came out. This isn’t that funny of a story until my manager told me his wife had just filed for divorce a week previous (I would tell that story to everyone i ever met if it was me).

Ryan Holmberg on Post-War Manga. Ryan Holmberg on Manga is always a must read. I’ll miss those 40+ page essays in 10 Cent Manga.

The Inkstuds 500th episode. Featuring my two favorite Inkstuds recurring guests.

Leading into the final days of Angouleme, Katsuhiro Otomo was the hands on favorite to win the Grand Prix, but in an odd twist 'Calvin and Hobbes' creator and noted recluse Bill Watterson won the prize. Since Otomo is still up for the prize next year (as long as he is alive), here's his out of print and therefore extremely expensive early work 'Domu', which has recently appeared scanned in completion online. I have heard rumors that 'Domu' is better than 'Akira', but i’m not sure how much of that is bluster about having read the work and how much of it is truth.

A review of Jack Kirby’s adaptation of '2001: A Space Odyssey'. I have read most of that series in issues since it will never be reprinted (and not never like 'Miracleman', i mean like never ever). Since it is a very good comic, and as the review points out, an interesting work to look at to see what Kirby took and didn't take from the Kubrick film.

Friday, March 7, 2014

1987 and all that 024: big kid

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Mephisto Vs. #1-4 (Marvel)
By Al Migrom, John Buscema, Bob Wiacek, George Roussos, and Rick Parker

'Mephisto Vs.'  is an odd duck. I completely understand the impulse to pit the Marvel Universe’s version of Satan against some of its premier super-teams. That makes perfect sense and sounds pretty cool, if perhaps overly simple. What I’m less clear on is why in this story Mephisto is characterized as a petulant child. Has he always behaved this way? I admit I’m not overly familiar with Mephisto, but I think of him as being very grim and stern and aloof. Though stranger, I far prefer the Mephisto of this series who, while he has an obnoxious temper, is also playful, chatty, and often hilarious. He’s a little kid, collecting and playing with toys, arguing with his parents, upset because his sister stole his things and messed up his room. That’s an amusing personality for an uber-powerful supervillain to have, because unlike most spoiled children, this one actually has the ability to get his way.

The plot of 'Mephisto Vs.' is either exceedingly straightforward or needlessly complex, depending on how you look at it. All Mephisto wants to do is get back at Hela, his Norse mythology counterpart, for breaking their jurisdictional agreement and stealing human souls from him. Hela is only supposed to get the souls of Norse gods, apparently, while evil humans go to Mephisto, and he’s pissed that she broke the rules. He also worries that if she gets her hands on too many human souls, she’ll have enough to challenge him, sending her souls against his in an attempt to take his realm from him for good. So he sets out to stop her, and to preemptively give himself the upper hand should that confrontation between them ever occur. That’s simple enough in theory, but the execution of Mephisto’s plan is tangled and hard to follow, especially because his true motive is not revealed until more than halfway through the story. Also, the real purpose of this series is just to have Mephisto fight a bunch of different heroes, so the plot that ties those fights together isn't necessarily the point, and therefore not all that carefully constructed. 

Mephisto begins by going after the Fantastic Four. He kidnaps them all and brings them to his kingdom, and then proceeds to torture them one-by-one until only Sue Richards is left intact. Then, as demons and devils are wont to do, he offers Sue a deal: her soul in exchange for the release of her family. Sue of course agrees, and stays behind as Mephisto’s prisoner while the rest of the FF return home. From that point on, Mephisto continues to trade one superhero soul for another, each time getting a slightly more valuable soul than before. So he gives up Sue Richards for Jean Grey, because mutant souls are better than human, apparently. He then lets Jean go, but only after acquiring the souls of several X-Men at once by just capturing Rogue (because Rogue had touched her teammates and absorbed their essences into herself in a desperate attempt to save them from Mephisto). Only Rogue is permanently trapped, however, since Mephisto loses control over the other X-Men’s souls once Rogue’s touch wears off and their personalities and powers return to them. Rogue is all Mephisto needs anyway, because what he really wants is to get his hands on Thor, what with Thor being a god and therefore having the purest, most powerful kind of soul. Mephisto forces Rogue to come in contact with an unconscious Thor, driving Thor’s soul from his body so Mephisto can trap it. But it turns out Thor’s soul is too stubborn and mighty to be kept down by even one as powerful as Mephisto, so in the end Thor breaks free and Mephisto is left with nothing.  

At each step in this better-and-better-souls scheme, Mephisto explains out loud and with some verbosity what he’s doing, how, and why. The problem is, none of what Mephisto says is necessarily true. As evil incarnate, he uses an awful lot of deceit to get what he’s after, so he’ll often lay out his reasons for doing something quite clearly one issue, only to backpedal the next and say that, no, he was lying before, and his real reasons for doing whatever he did were entirely different. Initially, he says he’s attacking the Fantastic Four to get back at little Franklin Richards for hurting him in a previous conflict. It’s not until 'Mephisto Vs.' #2 that the idea of gradually gathering souls of higher and higher quality is introduced, and even then Mephisto’s endgame is kept obscure. The final issue is when we finally learn that the whole affair is Mephisto trying to stick it to Hela for an earlier slight, which is why Thor is his actual target. According to the current rules, Thor’s soul would go to Hela after he died, so Mephisto claims he wants to steal it now, robbing Hela of a powerful addition to her own collection of souls and also better preparing himself to fight her should she make her move against him in the future. But then, at the very, very end of the series, there is yet another exposition twist, when Mephisto explains (to no one in particular) that even that wasn't his real plan. All he truly aimed to do was make Hela think he wanted Thor’s soul, so that she would insist on keeping it for herself, and then someday, if/when Thor actually dies, Hela will be the one who has to deal with trying to control his overpowered, rebellious spirit.

I hear your cries, But why would Mephisto need to trick Hela into keeping a soul that was already going to be hers eventually? And boy do I wish I had an answer to that question, but I don’t believe there are any to be found. By the time Mephisto divulged that final detail, he had already flip-flopped and re-explained himself so many times that trying to suss out what he actually accomplished (if he in fact accomplished anything) seemed like it would be exhausting and futile. Especially because I know full well that giving Mephisto a legitimate reason to encounter all these different super-people was not this comic’s primary concern. Also, his constant lying and mind-changing goes well with the rest of how he’s portrayed here, namely as a rotten brat of a kid who’s having the longest, silliest tantrum ever.

Mephisto is not literally depicted as a child, it should be noted at this point; he just acts like one. I mean, this whole narrative is basically Mephisto pitching a fit over Hela taking his toys without asking. At one point The Living Tribunal shows up to warn Mephisto about the dangers of the game he’s playing, and the dialogue is very much that of a parent scolding a kid. The Tribunal stays calm and direct, but has a hard time penetrating Mephisto’s fussy fury. Mephisto’s arguments, meanwhile, basically boil down to, “It’s not fair!” and, “Why aren’t you yelling at Hela?” two classic childhood tactics that get the same lack of results here as they typically do in the real world. He sees the souls he takes as his playthings, literally referring to them as “pawns,” and delights in his control over them. It’s the selfish joy of a kid with his favorite toys. Even when battling the heroes directly, ostensibly bringing himself to their level, he plays the role of schoolyard bully, pushing around and teasing the weaker kids just because he can. This immaturity is a somewhat ill-fitting contrast to Mephisto’s power level and the intricacy of his plan, but it adds levity to the series that I think it needs. It also gives the reader one constant truth to hang onto in the sea of Mephisto’s lies. No matter what he says he’s doing or how he tries to paint himself, Mephisto can be counted on to act childishly.

Here I am carrying on about the plot and Mephisto’s personality, when at the end of the day none of that is really why anyone would have any interest in this comic. Like Mephisto himself, I’m dancing around the truth, which is that the best reason—maybe the only good reason—to read 'Mephisto Vs.' is to see John Buscema draw so much of the Marvel U all in one book. Also, Buscema helped create Mephisto, and draws him incredibly well, really selling him as a viable star of a series, even if it is just four issues long. Buscema gets to do whole issues worth of the Fantastic Four, X-Factor (back when they were the original X-Men pretending to be mutant hunters), the X-Men, and both the East and West Cost Avengers teams. There’s also The Living Tribunal, Hela, a whole bunch of crazy and/or goofy demons, and one great flashback panel of the Silver Surfer, and everybody looks amazing. Buscema is such a professional talent; he’s equally comfortable with the lineups of all these teams and more. His settings are varied and detailed, most impressively Mephisto’s kingdom, which is richly textured despite being desolate. His strongest work comes when Mephisto is tormenting the heroes. There’s a standout moment in every issue: the full-page splash of Mephisto kissing Rogue, the horrified puddle face of a melted Iceman, Mephisto’s crazy extended arm grasping Wonder Man’s throat, and best of all, Mephisto peeling the rocky skin off of The Thing to expose a paper-thin soul underneath. Buscema is inventive in his combat choreography, never having Mephisto use the exact same trick twice, because his powers are so many and so mighty that he has no need to repeat himself. If nothing else, it keeps the comic from growing stale, and that plus the ever-changing cast makes each issue visually distinct from the others, so all four are worth it if you’re into the art. Come for the Buscema, stay for the Buscema.

'Mephisto Vs.' is not a bad comic book, or at least not as bad as it very well could’ve been considering it's openly gimmicky nature. The conflict of Mephisto being the most powerful but least grown-up character is highly amusing, Buscema makes everything look nice and classic, and though the plot is wonky, there’s no pretense that it was at all the top priority. Four issues is the perfect length for this sort of thing, although I do wonder how much it would have suffered if the X-Factor chapter had been removed completely. It’s the least connected issue, and it features the least established team, though the cast are the founding X-Men so I guess that’s debatable. In any case, four issues feels right, enough space to display the full range of Mephisto’s powers but not so much that it runs out of steam. I wouldn't call this a good comic book either, but it’s fine and it’s fun and it’s not trying to be anything more than that. It’s a curiosity, and even without offering much of substance, it manages to be well worth a look.

Friday, February 21, 2014

1987 and all that 023: two years in a year

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Batman #404-407 (DC)
by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Richmond Lewis, Todd Klein


Detective Comics #575-578 (DC)
by Mike W. Barr, Alan  Davis, Paul Neary, Todd McFarlane, Alfredo Alcala, Adrienne Roy, Richard Starkings, Agustin Mas, John Costanza, Todd Klein

I have officially been writing these “1987 And All That” columns for a full year now, which is pretty cool. I thought I would celebrate the occasion by reading one of 1987’s most beloved stories, and an especially appropriate tale to mark a one-year anniversary, 'Batman: Year One.' But then I thought, hey, if I’m doing that, I might as well keep going and read 'Batman: Year Two' as well, since it was published immediately after “Year One,” just in a different book and with different creators. Having read both stories before, I knew they had almost nothing to do with one another, and that “Year One” was excellent while “Year Two” stunk. Yet it still seemed like it might be fun to read them back-to-back, and then examine them side-by-side to see exactly what makes them so dramatically different from one another in quality. There are, of course, many reasons, but what it all boils down to is this: while released one right after the other and both technically canon at the time, these two stories are about two entirely different versions of Batman, not from the same world as each other or in any discernible way even the same person.

This division between the two begins with the simple fact that “Year One” is a retelling while “Year Two” is an original story (Editors Note: Technically, it is actually supposed to be a retelling of this story, but how well it does that is debatable -- Joey). Though it has a powerful, singular voice, and adds plenty of new details, “Year One” is still covering old, established ground. Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham with a plan, and after the famous bat-crashing-through-the-window moment of inspiration, he dons his cape and cowl and becomes the city’s Dark Knight. It’s the core of what Batman is, the essential narrative. The summary for “Year Two” sounds more like fan fiction or something similarly experimental and ridiculous. A man named The Reaper, who apparently used to be like a lethal Batman in Gotham twenty years ago, shows up again and starts killing anyone he thinks deserves it, which is more or less just anyone. Batman gets so frustrated by this Reaper jerk that he starts using a gun and teams up with criminals. That’s bad enough, but it gets worse, because the gun he uses is the actual gun that killed his parents. That’s right, all these years, Bruce Wayne has secretly been holding onto the murder weapon, I guess waiting for a special occasion. And even more foolish than that, the crook he partners with is also the man that killed his parents! This is such an outrageous idea, that Batman would not only compromise all of his values after one fight with one villain, but do it with the help of very weapon and person that caused the tragedy which gave him those values in the first place…it’s almost admirable in its brazenness. But it’s a far cry from something as fundamental as “Year One.”

In “Year One,” both writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli bring an old-school noir feel to the whole affair that fits with the classic nature of the story. The real star isn't even really Batman but Jim Gordon, the hard-boiled, stand-up cop trying to survive in a corrupt new city. The two men share a lot of parallel experiences in their individual struggles against Gotham’s greatest evils, but Gordon’s story packs more of an emotional punch. He has the strained marriage, the illicit romance, the near-loss of his infant son. He holds things together through his humanity, while Bruce becomes something slightly other than human. Giving the reader a more grounded character with more personal problems to latch onto allows Miller to take his time with things. Gordon narrates a lot, with Bruce filling in most of the gaps, and the constant insight into their thoughts adds detail and heft to everything. When one of them wrestles with a decision or learns a hard lesson, the reader goes through every agonizing step of the process with them. Yet the pacing is lively enough, and Miller’s writing is so efficient, that there’s no sense of things being slowed or over-explained. We get the perfect amount of information, relayed with precision, so that every beat of every issue is given ample room.

Meanwhile, “Year Two” is an exercise in rushed, hand-waving narration. Batman goes from meeting the Reaper to pulling out the gun that killed his parents by the end of the first issue, and the end of the second is when he teams up with Joe Chill, his parents’ murderer. There are a few narrative captions worth of inner turmoil about it, but Batman quickly reaffirms that he thinks working with villains is the only way to stop the Reaper, so he has no significant reaction to Chill and they just go ahead and work together. It goes too far into hard-to-swallow territory, and without even trying to take the time to sell it. The reader is asked to accept something so implausible just because it’s happening, not because we have been given a reason to believe.

There’s other stuff crammed in there too. Bruce Wayne meets Rachel Caspian, who is days away from taking her final vows as a nun, and charms her out of it over the course of a single date. He meets her father on their next date (who is weirdly fine with his daughter giving up her whole life plan for a man she just met), and on their third date they get engaged. It’d be one thing if Bruce and Rachel had a natural, wonderful rapport with each other, though even then their romance would be moving at a dizzying speed. But their interactions are brief, strangely formal, and never at all playful or affectionate or in any way resembling love. Why include such an awkward romance? Because Rachel’s father is, unbelievably enough, the Reaper himself, which only matters insofar as she goes back to being a nun once he is unmasked as Gotham’s worst killer, to atone for his sins. It’s just one final blow for the Reaper to deliver to Batman, a hit neither of them anticipated. Not a bad idea, but executed poorly.

That’s a good way to describe all of “Year Two,” at least at the most basic conceptual level. I like the notion that, in his second year of costumed crime fighting, when faced with an enemy more wicked and powerful than any he’d seen before, Batman might go a little nutty and resort to reprehensible and reckless tactics. If things had stopped at that point, it might’ve been a worthwhile read. But to bring in all this needless stuff with Joe Chill and the gun, and the wedged-in plot with Rachel, and even having the Reaper be an old vigilante returning after decades of inactivity…it’s too much, and handled badly. Which is difficult to get past, especially after reading “Year One,” the story of all of Bruce’s years of training and focus finally coming together. “Year Two” is about all of it coming apart in almost no time at all, and it doesn’t earn that dismemberment of the character, that rapid unraveling of the incredibly tight work done in “Year One.” If more time had been taken, and more thought put into things, watching Bruce become unhinged under the pressure of his mission could have been entertaining as hell. I have seen that done before and likely will again. “Year Two” is just too much reason-less shark-jumping with nothing to back it up.

Miller and Mazzucchelli, as I mentioned, deliver a cohesive atmosphere to their story. And it’s worth noting they work with a single colorist, Richmond Lewis, and only one letterer as well, Todd Klein. A small, steady team. Though “Year Two” is written by Mike Barr alone, the first issue has Alan Davis and Paul Neary on art, while Todd McFarlane and Alan Alcala handle the rest. Oh, except, no, I’m looking again now, and it turns out Alcala isn't on the final issue, so McFarlane must ink himself on that one. Adrienne Roy is the sole colorist, bringing at least some visual consistency, but then there’s a different letterer each issue. Not that it makes an enormous, starkly obvious difference, but it does make some impact, and the point is that there’s way less creative stability in “Year Two,” which may account for some of its problems with timing and tone. There’s clarity of vision in “Year One” while “Year Two” is messier from start to finish.

As a final point of contrast, Miller and Barr write their Batmans (Batmen?) very differently as characters. Miller’s is stoic, largely silent, and when he speaks it is with intentional, almost theatrical gravitas. He cares obsessively about his fight for good, but carefully considers every move and mistake he makes. Barr’s Batman is much chattier, and more snarky than somber. He’s also friendlier, as Batman and Bruce Wayne both. He gives Gordon a pipe as a present, has casual meals with Rachel and Leslie Thompkins, and is just generally more engaged with people, less tucked away from the world. He’s also rasher, and less patient or reasonable. His craziness runs deeper, and it makes him wild and hard to predict. Miller’s Batman is angry but disciplined; Barr’s is out of control.

The only logical conclusion I can come to, the only way I can reconcile these two stories, is to think of them as existing in distinct universes. These are not narratives about the same man living through two consecutive years of his life, but, instead, they’re wholly separate tales. They both feature spins on the same character, sure, but there’s nothing connecting them to each other beyond that. And there are actually some in-story facts to back up this interpretation. Bruce Wayne is twenty-five in “Year One,” but then in “Year Two” he describes Joe Chill as “the man who, twenty-five years ago, created the Batman…” Now, I’m no Batman historian, but based on the fact that he could walk and talk and understand The Mark of Zorro, I am going to guess Bruce was older than one when his parents got shot, so those two things don’t quite line up. Also, Leslie Thompkins is not a character in “Year One” at all, but she’s an everyday part of Bruce’s life in “Year Two,” and privy to the fact that he’s Batman. Finally, and for me this is the big one, the very last thing that happens to Gordon in “Year One” is he gets promoted to captain. Then, pretty much the very first thing we learn about him in “Year Two” is that he’s just been made commissioner. Even if several months passed between the two stories, hell, even if “Year Two” is really just “December of Year Two,” it makes no sense that Gordon would get another promotion that quickly, no matter how beloved he is. I just don’t see any way that these two stories could be reasonably seen as tying into one another.

Plus, there is always the matter of “Year One” being published in 'Batman' while “Year Two” got 'Detective Comics'. I’m not knocking Detective, because historically I think it may have the better track record, but 'Batman' feels more official. And whichever you prefer, that the two stories weren't published under the same title definitely makes it easier to think of them as fully disconnected. Two different books, two different creative teams, therefore two completely different worlds. Both of those worlds have a Batman, yes, but one of them is great while the other’s a dud.