Friday, February 27, 2004

Knights Of The Dinner Table: Black Hands #2 - A Review

Written by: Jolly Blackburn.
Penciled by: Jolly Blackburn
Inked by: N/A
Colored by: N/A
Lettered by: N/A
Editor: Jolly Blackburn
Publisher: Kenzer And Company

Knights of the Dinner Table is a familiar book to most followers of gamer humor comics.
The set up of the book is simple; a rotating cast of different groups of up to five friends sit around a table playing role-playing games and hilarity ensues. Far from being filled with in-jokes, the books are usually accessible to people who haven’t sat down to a good game of D&D on a Friday night once in their lives and the humor is more dependant on character and personality than on knowing why throwing a portable hole into a bag of holding is a bad thing. (And in case you’re curious… it’s a bit like “crossing the streams” in ‘Ghostbusters’.)

This issue, the second in an irregular published series, centers upon the gaming group known as The Black Hands. Probably the worst group of gamers in this world’s Muncie, Indiana, The Black Hands spend just as much time fighting each other as the monsters and non-player characters in their game. Probably more. The regular team consists of…

• Weird Pete – Owner of the local game store, former game designer, licensed Game Master and scheming opportunist both as a player and a business man.
• Nitro – The regular Game Master. Ex-Army grunt who has had his GM credentials pulled numerous times and his reputation questioned, due to incidents involving getting people lost in the sewer during a live-action game and blowing up a campus building.
• Gordo – probably the best player in the group, but his fondness for playing pixie fairies (the weakest race in the game) and female characters make everyone but the other Black Hands WAY too uncomfortable to play with him.
• Newt – The newbie. Lives to get cool magic items and annoy Stevil.
• Stevil – Jerk, whiner and Weird Pete’s usual partner in crime. Lives to screw over Newt’s characters.

The plot of this book centers upon the Black Hands plans for a week without Nitro, who is going to a gamer’s convention. Weird Pete steps up and offers to run the group through a game of Hacknoia; a game of espionage, spies and intrigue. Joining the group for this one night is Bob; one of Weird Pete’s employees and member of the gaming group The Knights of the Dinner Table.

This is one of the funnier stories done in any of the volumes of this book in recent memory. Of particular note is the portly Weird Pete’s comment that he is on the Atkins Diet (“Lost nearly two pounds in the last month eating nothing but chicken wings, pork rinds and cheese omelets. Best darn diet I ever tried!”) and the laugh-out-loud inducing line “What are we going to do now, Stevil? We got a faceless corpse in my hotel room!”

The art’s not worth discussing much as Blackburn himself admits to being a less-than-gifted artist, whose talent as a writer and comedian more than made up for this fact when he originally sketched the characters as a back-up feature for various gaming magazines. That said, his sketchy style is not without its’ charm and is somehow appropriate to the “homespun” feel of his stories.

Lucifer #47 - A Review

Written by: Mike Carey
Penciled by: Peter Gross
Inked by: Ryan Kelly
Cover by: Christopher Moeller
Colored by: Daniel Vozzo
Lettered by: Jared Fletcher
Editor: Shelly Bond
Publisher: Vertigo Comics

A quick summation: the former Archangel Lucifer, having quit his job as the ruler of Hell, had created a universe of his own in the Void, setting out to prove in some small way that he could run things better than God, precisely by NOT running things and not ruling over people. Protecting this world are the spirits of two girls, one of whom (Elaine) was responsible for saving Lucifer’s existence and one of whom, Mona, was Elaine’s best friend.

As this issue opens, Elaine, Mona and a handful of various series regulars are ridding this new universe of all the immortals, fey and other magical beings and gods who have taken refuge in this new Universe, due to a recent attempt by two titans with more cunning than good sense to usurp the power of God through this universe. While most are leaving willingly, there are a few who are refusing to go or trying to hide and it is up to our Devil-chosen band to get them evicted.

As noted before, Lucifer is one of the most involved books on the market today and can be quite the challenge for the new reader. Indeed, I wonder how much use my reviews of the book are for attracting new readers as all I can say is “This is a good book! Go read it, but get the back issues.”

Then again, perhaps that is all that needs to be said.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Looking To The Stars: One Ring To Confuse Them All - Part One

A few weeks back, Mathan Erhardt wrote a review of Green Lantern #173 , in which he talked about some of the continuity problems in the book since Ron Marz’s departure from the series. While most of his complaints centered upon characterization, there was one comment that got my attention…

“I was (also) under the impression that one of the things Kyle changed about his ring post-Ion was the need to charge.”

This is, I admit, a bit obtuse a statement to any who isn’t familiar with the last 30 issues of so of Green Lantern and the changes that Kyle Rayner (one of the two current Ring Bearers) made to his in Green Lantern #150. Perhaps the most impressive weapon in all of comics-literature, The Green Lantern Power Ring has gone through a lot of evolution since the days when Alan Scott protected the streets of Gotham with a ring that could manipulate metals.

Over the next few weeks, we shall examine how the limits and capabilities of the Ring (and indeed, the individual Green Lanterns) has changed dramatically within the last few years of the book. Before we can do that, however, we have to define the three types of Green Lantern rings and how they have appeared standardly.

The three rings shall henceforth be defined as Alpha Ring (Standard GL Corps Ring), Beta Ring (Alan Scott’s Ring) and Omega Ring (Kyle Rayner’s Ring).

Alpha Ring – Standard GL Corps. Ring

Description: The ring created by the Guardians of the Universe to serve as a weapon and tool for their Green Lantern Corps, in order to protect the universe.

Power Source: The Central Power Battery on the Guardian’s home planet of Oa.

Weaknesses: The ring must be recharged every 24 hours. Also, the ring is unable to affect any object that is yellow or beings with yellow skin pigmentation.

Powers of the Ring: The ring nominally allows the bearer to do anything, given sufficient willpower to accomplish it. The ring has a number or programmed safeguards that keep it from being used for certain tasks (such as killing) but these can be overridden by Green Lantern with exceptional willpower or a mind that does not function in a normal way. Classified examples of standard ring uses are.

· Energy Object Creation and Manipulation

· Flight

· Limited Healing

· Protective Shields

· Space Travel (Produces whatever gases and temperature the bearer needs to breathe and live)

· Universal Translator

· Invisibility

· Astral Projection (through an energy double of the bearer)

· Mind Tampering

· Communication Device (with standard transmissions or other Green Lantern rings)

· Remote Control of Ring

· Ring Duplication

· Ring AI/Database – Ring allows bearer to access information from the Central Power Battery on Oa, similar to a series of networked computers and a file server.

· Protection from Mortal Harm/ Life Support – An energy reserve in the ring allows it to protect its’ bearer from surprise attacks. Additionally, this charge can be used to sustain a Green Lantern if knocked unconscious in the void of space until help can be summoned.

Beta Ring – Alan Scott’s Ring

Description: Fashioned from the lantern of deceased Green Lantern Yalan Gur and bonded to the chaotic magical energy of the colossal gem known as The Starheart, train engineer Alan Scott survived a fatal wreck thanks to the magic of the lantern, Carving a ring from it, Alan used its magic to fight evil as The Green Lantern during WWII and into the present day.

While its’ powers and origin have changed slightly over the years, Alan Scott’s ring has always been treated as a magical artifact while the other GL rings have been products of science and advanced alien technology. A link to the original Green Lanterns was forged in Green Lantern #19 (current series), when it was revealed that rather than being forged from a piece of the magical Starheart, his lantern was an old GL Lantern, lain dormant after the death of its’ owner, Yalan Gur.

Yalan Gur was the subject of an experiment by the Guardians to see if their best and brightest could handle the strain of omnipotence. It was revealed in this issue that the yellow weakness of the Green Lantern rings was a programmed flaw, which was meant to push the Corps to greater versatility as well as insuring the Guardians had a way to deal with those who rebelled. Gur, however, fell to the temptation of limitless power and became a despot in Ancient China. He was defeated after the Guardians programmed a new weakness into his battery, which made him vulnerable to the wooden weapons of the peasants he was ruling. This batter was later taken over by the Starheart; a gem made up of all the wild chaotic magic from the beginning of the universe, which the Guardians gathered up in order to make the universe more organized.

Power Source: The Starheart; a gem made of chaos magic, created by The Guardians.

Weaknesses: The ring must be recharged every 24 hours. Also, the ring is unable to affect any object that is made of wood. Also, the ring lacks many of the Alpha Ring powers that are dependent upon the Guardian’s programming and the link to the Central Power Battery.

Powers of the Ring: Like the Alpha Ring, Alan Scott could use his ring to do anything he willed. However, since his ring was not “programmed” by the Guardians, it lacked some of the powers and the limits of the Alpha Ring. Alan Scott lamented this fact, and often talked about how he could wish for every person in the world to become a decent human being, but how denying people the choice for good and evil would be more evil than the crimes he sought to stop. Regardless, Scott has shown the following abilities.

• Energy Object Creation and Manipulation
• Flight
• Healing
• Protective Shields
• Space Travel
• Universal Translator
• Invisibility
• Astral Projection
• Mind Tampering - Alan has never said how he knows the ring can do this, but he has referred to avoiding using said power.

Omega Ring –Kyle Rayner’s Ring

Description: Forged from the broken remains of the ring of Green Lantern Hal Jordan, the last Guardian Ganthet went to Earth to try and convince the former GL Guy Gardner (a rival to Jordan)to use it to stand against the rogue lantern, now armed with the power of the Central Power Battery of Oa. Gardner refused, saying he did not want to bail out the Guardians now that they realized he was the better man. With not much time left, Ganthet was forced to give the ring to the untested and unlikely artist Kyle Rayner in the hopes that his strong imagination would prove able to weave around Jordan’s strong will.

Power Source: Lacking a connection to The Central Power Battery, Kyle’s battery draws power directly from “The Source”; a cosmic energy field responsible for creating The New Gods and empowering certain other energies throughout he universe.

Weaknesses: Unlike the Alpha Ring, the Omega Ring is not connected to the Central Power Battery of Oa. As such, it lacks access to the information databases of the Alpha Ring and is unable to communicate with the other, now dormant, Green Lantern rings.

Still, for what it lacks in the versatility of the Alpha Ring, the Omega Ring does make up in two important respects

First, it lacks the yellow weakness of the Alpha Ring, confirming that the weakness is indeed a programmable event in the rings; a point of contention among many GL fans for years. Also, unlike the Alpha Ring, the Omega Ring does not need to be charged on a daily basis. The Omega Ring functions as a normal power tool; being able to lie unused for days, slowly draining its’ supply until recharged.

Powers of the Ring: At first appearance, the Omega Ring lacked many of the powers of the Alpha Ring. While Kyle Rayner would later gain some of the powers as he became more experienced (which we will discuss in Part Two of this series), he started out very limited in terms of ability, though unhindered by the yellow weakness and 24 hour time limit.

· Energy Object Creation and Manipulation

· Flight

· Limited Healing

· Protective Shields

· Space Travel

· Universal Translator

· Communication Device

As we can see, the rings were all enhanced and limited in varying respects and indeed, had different power sources. Still, what is equally amazing is that each of the three ring bearers has shown the ability to use their powers without the ring through one bond or another.

· Perhaps most troublingly, Alan Scott would switch back and forth between needing the ring for his powers and not needing it, having a weakness to wood or not, calling himself Green Lantern or Sentinel and changing his apparent age several times throughout the course of the late 90’s / early 00’s.

· Hal Jordan, perhaps the best known example of this, was able to draw the entirety of the Central Power Battery into his being and renamed himself Parallax.

· Years later, Kyle Rayner would take this energy, released at Hal Jordan’s death along with energy he had drained away during “Circle of Fire”, and absorb it into himself to become the nigh-powerful Ion.

Still, the lack of the ring did little to change the powers. Alan Scott remained the same magical man, no matter how old he looked, what his name was or whether or not a wooden stake could kill him where bullet’s failed. Likewise, Jordan had much the same powers as a Green Lantern as Parallax; he just had access to much more energy and no qualms about doing potentially dangerous things such as altering the flow of time.

The exception to this is Kyle Rayner, who experienced some rather drastic changes after his bout with omnipotence and not needing a ring. However, this and his development of new abilities using the ring is very complicated and is a whole column unto itself.

How very fortunate that I have another one planned then, isn’t it?

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Epic Anthology #1 - A Review

Sleepwalker: New Beginnings

Written by: Robert Kirkman
Penciled by: Khary Randolph
Inked by: Pierre-Andre Dery
Colored by: Kanila Tripp
Lettered by: Rus Wooton
Editors: Teresa Focarile & Stephanie Moore
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Young Ancient One: The Mark of the Ancient Ones

Written by: Rob Worley
Penciled by: Andy Kuhn
Inked by: Andy Kuhn
Colored by: Bill Crabtree
Lettered by: Dave Sharpe
Editors: Teresa Focarile & Stephanie Moore
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Strange Magic: New Sheriff in Town

Written by: Jason Henderson
Penciled by: Greg Scott
Inked by: Greg Scott
Colored by: JD Mettler
Lettered by: Ed Dukeshire
Editors: Teresa Focarile & Stephanie Moore
Publisher: Marvel Comics

By now most of you have probably heard the tale of Marvel President Bill Jemas and his great plan to revitalize the long (and debatably rightly so) defunct Epic imprint of Marvel as a showcase for new talent and forgotten characters. Sadly, with such lackluster stories, such as “Trouble” and “Crimson Dynamo” coupled with Jemas’ ousting from his job, the line was quickly scrapped by the new Powers That Be, in the grand old political tradition of destroying all the old boss’ pet projects so that nothing successful can be connected to his name.

That brings us to this: Epic Anthology #1: three books in one, all Epic projects that were poised and ready for publication that will allegedly, if they prove popular in this volume, be given a chance as an actual title.

So how do these almost lost “treasures” stack up? Not very well, sadly…

Sleepwalker is perhaps the most typical of the three stories and it is also the most annoying and unappealing. The plot, such as it is, centers around a “poor little rich boy” who is going to film school on his parents pocket, slacking off, getting a rather cute geek girl to do all his work for him and is generally living like your average CEO. He gets hassled by a group of black men (who are never introduced as anything other than… a big hulking gang threatening the nice rich white boy!) because his mom rented the indoor basketball court to throw him a party while they had to practice on the outside court in the rain. His defense? He didn’t even want to have it in the first place. Yes, folks. This is our hero.

We are supposed to feel sorry for him when.. gasp… mom and dad threaten to disown his lazy ass if he doesn’t graduate this year! Unable to think of anything, he turns to the geek girl who bails him out again… and… well, to cut this short… Sleepwalker doesn’t even show up until the last panel and we have no indication of his involvement in any of what is going on other than he has been breaking into the rich spoiled snot’s apartment at night. It doesn’t tell you anything about the character and I can’t honestly seeing anyone wanting to read issue two of this, even ignoring the central character’s total lack of likeability and the borderline-racist subtext.

Call Sleepwalker a 2.0 out of 10.0

Young Ancient One has a silly title, but is actually the best bit in the book. Kuhn’s art is appropriately atmospheric and while a manga look would not have been inappropriate to the story, the approach here is like a more heavily inked Kevin O’Neill. The plot centers around, oddly enough, the adventures of Dr. Strange’s mentor, The Ancient One, as a young man protecting his villages from unjust taxes disguised as the vigilante Spirit Leopard.

This book is chocked full of Kung-Fu action and comedy, with Leung (The Ancient One) quipping like Spider-Man in his battles. The only time the story really falls apart is when some common slang slips into the dialogue. And I know that the book could just be a loose translation of an ancient story… it still makes me cringe to hear trained ninjas say “Awesome” outside of a Ninja Turtles cartoon.

Call this one 8.0 out of 10.0.

Strange Magic is, appropriately enough, the strangest story of the three here. Seeming more like a Vertigo title than anything Marvel would publish, it centers around a girl named Sofia Strange. She just moved to New Orleans and despite the protests of her Aunt Vesper, has determined to use her magic powers (Sofia is a sorceress) to police the magic-heavy city of all the various magical nasties that tend to swarm around such places. She gets a start at this by helping a guy named “Detroit Mike” to help find his sister, who ran away to New Orleans to join in a live-action role-playing game.
This isn’t all that bad of a story, but I’d give it another issue before deciding if I wanted to keep reading it or not. Sofia is interesting and has a perky personality and sense of humor unlike most of the magicians in the comic world. And unlike most of them, she also seems to be actively looking for trouble rather than sitting around contemplating the world and waiting for the next big disaster. Still, the story is nothing we haven’t seen before in Hellblazer and Books of Magic so the character winds up driving things more than the plot. The art is about even with the story, reminding me of a clearer and brighter Alex Maleev (Daredevil).

Call this a 6.5. Better than average, but not great either.

1602 #7 - A Review

Written by: Neil Gaiman
Penciled by: Andy Kubert
Inked by: Andy Kubert
Colored by: Richard Isanove (Digital Painting)
Lettered by: Todd Klein
Editors: Joe Quesda & Nick Lowe
Publisher: Marvel Comics

If you haven’t begun reading this book by now, I doubt anything I can say at this point will get you to do so. Indeed, I think the only people who will read this missive are those who have enjoyed 1602 as much as I have and share my sorrow that the penultimate chapter is here.

That said, while this is not the best thing Neil Gaiman has ever written (and there is something of a debate as to what the best thing he HAS written is- my vote goes to “Legend of the Green Flame” just to be difficult), this is certainly one of the best mini-series published in recent memory and it could easily stand alongside such works as “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns” in the future.

Gaiman’s knowledge and love of the classic Marvel characters is apparent in this volume, as we see things start to come together for a final confrontation of sorts as various ships are dispatched to the new world. On one, we have the Brotherhood of Witchbreed, lead by the now disposed Grand Inquisitor of Spain. On another, we have the Four of the Fantastic, Sir Nicholas Fury and the remnants of Carlos Javier’s School for Young Gentlemen. (And yes… in this issue, an X-Man will die!)

A third ship carries Dr. Strange’s wife, Rohjas the Indian (aka Captain Native America) and young mutant Virgina Dare. Yet another ship has been dispatched by the newly crowned King James, containing retired spy Peter Parquah, King’s Man “Banner” and a horde of troops loyal to James intent on capturing the traitor Sir Nicholas Fury.

There are a lot of good moments here that I shall not spoil so as to save them for you to read. Still, I must pay complement on one moment that I shall be vague upon; the manner in which Dr. Strange circumvents the orders from The Watcher that he may not speak or act upon the knowledge given him for as long as he may live. It is ingeniously literal and the type of clever “It’s so obvious and yet I didn’t see it coming” twist that Gaiman makes great play of.

Any artistic team who works with Gaiman draws the risk of playing second fiddle to the story. Thankfully, Gaiman is usually paired up with artists who can meet the challenge and Kubert is every bit his equal as a Master of his craft. The pencils are clear and visible underneath the digital inks and paints used to decorate and enhance Kubert’s work. Richard Isanove is also a credit to his profession here. And Todd Klein, whom has worked with Neil ever since “The Sandman”, shows why he is a regular nominee (and as I recall, most of the time a winner) of every lettering award in the industry.

Looking To The Stars: The Hunt For Consistency, Part Two

When we last left off in the history of Helena Bertinelli, aka The Huntress, things were looking up for the woman who had once been the black sheep of the Gotham City vigilantes. She was a member in good standing with the JLA and had finally won the begrudging respect of Batman when she took several bullets and resisted using lethal force in a situation (Joker attempting to kidnap several infants) where even Batman might have been tempted to kill. It appeared that Helena had learned to control her anger and had become a more traditional superhero.

Yet all this progress would be tossed by the wayside within a few short months. And so would begin a constantly repeating cycle as Huntress’ would once again waffle between desperately begging for Batman’s approval and going out of her way to annoy him.

This would have been consistent with her portrayal in the past, but was completely unneeded after the end of No Man’s Land. She was in the JLA. She had Batman tell her “good job”. What could go wrong?

Five words: Grant Morrison and Greg Rucka.

In JLA #39, during the World War III, storyline, Huntress threatened a disabled Prometheus with a crossbow bolt to the head. Batman arrived in time to witness the exchange and fired Huntress from the team; no explanations asked. Helena’s actions here were sudden and unprovoked and did not fit her portrayal at the time, which was that of aggressive but not lethal fighting. And then came Greg Rucka…

Now, I know a lot of you are big Greg Rucka fans and I’ll be the first to say that his work on such independent titles was pretty good. “Whiteout”, for example, is a great graphic novel. That said, when he took over a lot of the Bat-Books for DC, his understanding of certain key concepts was… a bit lacking. In fact, he was quoted as summing up Nightwing’s character as “a horndog” and didn’t know about the chronic running gag that Oracle did not know Robin’s secret identity. (Which there was much wailing and gnashing of the teeth about on the ol’ Dixonverse boards, boy let me tell you…)

Of course, Rucka did get better and his closing arcs on Detective Comics were pretty riveting stuff. Sadly, that doesn’t change the fact that his biggest work with Huntress, “Cry for Blood”, did a lot more to muddy the waters of Helena’s character than to clear things up.

I shall leave the greater brunt of the story a mystery. What concerns us the most about this mini-series is the reboot of Helena’s origin. At least, I assume it was a planned reboot and not a bad history resulting from a lack of knowledge in the character’s background as there are too many “clicking” details to assume otherwise.

In this retelling, Helena is eight years old when her family is gunned down before her at dinner. Word came that the entire Bertinelli family around the country was being killed, so Helena Rosa Bertinelli was sent away by her Uncle Tomaso Panessa to live with his brother in Sicily, where his family had a good deal of power. Helena’s care was entrusted to her older cousin: Salvatore Asaro (aka Sal) who taught her how to fight at a young age.

She was sent off to boarding school, where she had no inkling that her family were criminals until she read of her cousin and uncle’s arrest as Mafia Assassins in the paper. After that, she began to despise her family who she saw as parasites living off the weak… and of course there was the fact that someone in the organization had to have been responsible for the hit on her family. She became inspired after Batman attacked a Christmas party her relatives were throwing. She devoted herself, much like Bruce Wayne, to the study of crime (specifically, the Mafia) and continued to train herself to become a crimefighter, returning home to Gotham after she felt she could wait no longer.

This new background reflects a bit of Helena’s original Post-Crisis origin with a few minor changes.

* The death of her family occurs at a much younger age and in a more private setting. Originally, Helena lost her family when she was a college student at a wedding. This new origin closely mirrors that of Bruce Wayne, who also lost his family at the age of eight.

* (A cosmetic name change is made (Helena Rosa sounds more Italian than Helena Janice, I guess….)

*Helena is sent into hiding by her Uncle, not her Father. She is sent overseas instead of to a private school at a young age. She does however later attend a private school.

*She is still given basic training by a member of the Mafia named Sal, though there is a more personal bond between them in the modern origin.

*She was directly inspired by Batman in the modern image whereas she had adopted the Huntress identity on her own in the past.

*Her time in New York is not mentioned in the new origin; she has always lived in either Sicily or Gotham.

*Reference is made to Mandragora and Helena dealing with the man who killed her family and the man who authorized the hit, as per the Post-Crisis origin. The new Post-Zero Hour origin, however, adds a wrinkle- someone else asked Mandragora to organize the Bertinelli family hit!

Perhaps the biggest and most interesting change that came about as a result of this origin is the revelation that Helena still has semi-regular dealings with her extended family. Though many of them do not approve of her, she is still accepted as family. Rucka plays with this a bit in the mini-series, suggesting that Helena is using her position to find out how things are flowing in the family business and then acting accordingly. And the aforementioned revelation regarding one more person behind the death of Helena’s family provided a rather interesting twist.

So why then could this series be regarded as something of a disaster for Helena’s characterization? Well, in short order…

1. She loses her job as a teacher as a result of her disappearing to train with Richard Dragon for a few months. This killed off one of the more interesting parts of her character; her desire to give back something to the world as well as protect it, in favor of her becoming a full time vigilante living off the family fortune.. aka blood money. Which is a worthy use for it, I am sure, but Helena had always been portrayed in the past as loving her teaching for what it let her do on a deeper level.

2. She wins Batman’s trust, even in the wake of her accidentally shooting him. He tells her he trusts her to clear her own name in regards to the murder charges pending against her and that he believes she will not use violent means and actually gets an offer of help if she needs it. This is all thrown away in the wake of…

3. Huntress. Big time “I hate the Mafia and everything it stands for” Huntress, winds up making a deal with the Mafia to solve the big problem posed in the final chapter of the miniseries. Ignoring the totally out of character way this is handled, the fact that the solution is ripped right out of “The Godfather” (she asks for a hit to be placed, on the day of the Don’s daughter’s wedding) and the casual manner in which Helena does all of this, it wound up destroying all the progress and development that Helena had made in the past five issues of being manipulated, coming to peace with herself, getting all that she wanted and then blowing it all for revenge.

Of course a case could be made for Helena being so obsessed with revenge that it will overcome all of her other wants, including acceptance and approval for her work. The fact is that her portrayal up to this point does not back that case up and that “Batman/Huntress: Cry For Blood” did a lot more to hurt Helena as a character than to help her, despite having tied her background more closely into the mythos of Gotham City.

Helena didn’t see much action since then, aside from the occasional shot in the background of various Batman titles. That was until Gotham Knights #35, where a disgusted Huntress informed Batman that she wanted nothing to do with him or “the family” ever again in the wake of Batman’s attempts to help Bane on a personal mission of his own.

She quickly returned in Gotham Knights #37-40, when CheckMate tried to recruit Huntress as a member of their team, in order to better spy on Batman. After kidnapping her and using Scarecrow and Mad Hatter to learn more about her past, she escaped and was found by Batman and Robin, whom she warned before passing out. She would later agree to join Checkmate, but with Batman’s blessing and the understanding that she would be a spy for him. Quite a quick change in attitude, all of this coming from one writer in six issues: Scott Beatty.

About the same time, Helena would develop a prominent role in the “Batman: Hush”, mini-series appearing in a new costume and on a new motorcycle. It would later be revealed that these were donated to her by a mysterious patron (Hush) whom she trusted only because the money was clean. This begs the question of why would Helena need such reserves? She was shown as having a nice sports car while she was working as a teacher and her background suggests that she still has the Bertinelli family fortune to fund her activities. Has she fallen on hard times in the wake of her actions in “Cry For Blood”? Or did she decide not to look a gift horse in the mouth after making sure the money was clean? Jeph Loeb never said. Though this has no baring on Helena’s character, it is nonetheless a sore point that should be addressed as it does indirectly tie in to her willingness to be a team player and take help when it is offered.

More recently, Helena appears to have stabilized and become somewhat accepted in Gotham again. At the very least, she has gained the begrudging tolerance of Oracle (no mean feat considering the Batrgirl thing, the “you’re a killer” thing, the “you slept with the guy I have a crush on” thing…) and the friendship of Black Canary. Credit that to Gail Simone, who appears to have finally gotten Huntress to where she should be; the hardass with a heart of gold, who can play with the team provided she is respected and not pushed into following orders. Very much like Power Girl as written by Geoff Johns in JSA.

Then again, Judd Winick (who seems to be getting a lot of characters out of character of late) recently wrote Huntress as having fallen back into her old ways of being one part Veruca Salt and two parts Mule in a recent Outsiders issue. More disturbingly, she seemed to be in the issue mostly to annoy Nightwing, who had always been one of the few people in the Bat Family who tolerated her presence.

Then again, Dick’s feelings on Huntress have gone all over the place too…

· Acceptance - (pre-Nightwing/Huntress miniseries)

· Mild-flirtation - (post-Nightwing/Huntress for about three months)

· Major hatred - (Nightwing’s own series, where Chuck Dixon was asserting “Dick and Babs 4-EVER”)

· Awkward Love (during No Man’s Land)

· Love (end of No Man’s Land)

· Cautious Mistrust & Puppy Dog (Cry for Blood)

· Indifference (Post-Cry for Blood to Present)

What’s my point? Here’s some things we need clarified ASAP.

1. Helena’s Family Relationships – Is she still on good terms with them openly? Is she still going to all the parties and what not? This could be a gold mine of material to explore- woman on the inside and all that.

2. Helena’s Financial Situation – Is she living off the family fortune or what?

3. The Checkmate Situation – Is Helena still involved with them?

4. Killing or No? – Is Helena totally committed to non-lethal force now? Has she ever directly killed someone? (Not through inaction or arranging a death?)

5. Character Relationships – Where does she stand with Batman? Oracle? Robin? Nightwing? The Question?

Of course it is possible that I’m thinking too much about all of this and that perhaps my plead for a little continuity and common ground rules is unreasonable.

That’s not going to stop me from taking a look at the spotty portrayal of the Green Lantern Power Battery next week. ;)

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

X-Treme X-Men #41 - A Review

Written by: Chris Claremont
Penciled by: Igor Kordey
Inked by: Greg Adams
Colored by: Liquid!
Lettered by: Cory Petit
Editor: Mike Marts
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Somewhere, on a beach in Hawaii, intrepid comic book critic and international playboy “Starman” Matt Morrison, is spending some time with his latest love interest, when suddenly the call to action comes!


“Starman” Matt Morrison: Yello?

Daron, The Dark Overlord: MINNION!

Starman: Oh. Hey.

Overlord: Don’t “oh hey” me, minion! You have been absent for TWO WEEKS!

Starman: I had the time off approved!

Girl: Honey, who is that? Is it Ben Affleck?

Starman: Umm… sure.

Girl: Oooh, can I talk to him? I have a friend who could really help him get over J-Lo.

Starman: Ummmm…. No. He’s really very private.

Overlord: Minion, who is that? Surely it is not the sick mother you went to visit?

Starman: Umm… no. That’s my… physical trainer. She’s helping me work out some of the stress of mom’s illness.. (covering mouthpiece of phone) Honey, could you go get some more of that scented oil and rub my feet? They’re starting to ache something awful

Girl: Well, okay… but only cause I’m such a big fan of your work, Mr. Smith. (walks off)

Overlord: Mr. Smith? What manner of madness is this?

Starman: She thinks I’m Hugo Weaving… or Kevin Smith, I forget which.

Overlord: Indeed. Why can you not just pay for your wenches like the rest of us?

Starman: Because I believe in a little thing called romance. I’m saving myself for the special girl who will…

Overlord: … let you touch her?

Starman: (sighs) What do you want? Besides the complete and total obliteration of all joy from my life?

Overlord: I want you to review the new X-Treme X-Men book.

Starman: … like I said, what ELSE do you want?

Overlord: It is not THAT bad…

Starman: Has everyone else refused to read it but me?! Is there not one person on the staff who can be persuaded to start reading the core X-Men books on a regular basis but me?!?! Has the bar for quality really sunk that low?

Overlord: Umm… yes, yes and HELL YES.

Starman: Fine! You want to know what happens?

Overlord: Tell me.

Starman: It’s the same old stuff. Claremont Plot #032. Someone gets kidnapped, brainwashed and turned against their friends. While that is going on, everybody else figures out that the person was captured. They spend the rest of the issue arguing over what to do, come to blows, someone cools things down and a reasonable plan is suggested and exposition gets thrown about like a poltergeist in a china shop. Replace “someone” with character name and watch money come in.

Overlord: Isn’t that just a bit cynical and unfair?

Starman: Well, I’ll give Claremont credit in that this is one of the all too few occasions where a guy, Bishop in this case, is the one who gets their clothes ripped off as they are captured and tortured. Although it seems like every issue I’ve read of this has had some kind of suggestive BDSM artwork and master/slave control subtext that just makes me feel all icky.

Overlord: What about the art?

Starman: I really don’t care for it. Kordey is competent, and this issue is not nearly as cheesecake-driven as the last issue I read of this. Still, the style is a lot more cartoonish than feels appropriate to the series. I’d prefer someone with a little darker style.

Overlord: And overall?

Starman: Not as bad as “Storm: The Arena”, but on the whole I’d rather be reading “Dark Reign” over in JSA and Hawkman.

Overlord: Indeed?

Starman: Yeah. Now can I get back to my therapy?

Overlord: For another week, yes.

Starman: Good! Geez, I’m glad that they’re ending the book in a few months and you’ll never be able to make me read X-Treme X-Men again.

Overlord: This is true. You’ll just have to review the new X-Calibur title instead…

Starman: (long pause) I loathe you with the intensity of a thousand white hot blazing suns, you do know that?

Monday, February 2, 2004

Looking To The Stars: The Hunt For Consistency, Part One

Is there any heroine in the stable of DC Comics heroines who has been more inconsistently portrayed than The Huntress?

True, there are a lot of heroines who have gotten some rather shabby treatment. Donna Troy is the queen of the origin reboot, getting a new story as to how she got her powers every five years now, it seems. Power Woman has played second fiddle to whoever was Supergirl that year ever since the end of Crisis. Jade has been depowered and repowered so many times that even we Green Lantern fans can’t remember if she still has plant control powers or not. But I put it to you all that when it comes to changing goals, erratic characterization and just plain “who the heck is this?” attitude, Helena Bertinelli is the most screwed up of the lot.

It all started out rather simply. On another Earth, Batman and Catwoman married and had a daughter; Helena Wayne. Helena followed in daddy’s footsteps and became a crime fighting vigilante called “The Huntress”. She had a back-up feature in Wonder Woman for quite a while, teamed up with Power Girl a few times and even guested in Infinity Inc.

That changed after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, when Helena’s Earth was erased from existence. That was the end of The Huntress until 1989, when Joey Cavalieri created a new Huntress that would fit into the new post-Crisis world.

Helena Janice Bertinelli was the daughter of Guido Bertinelli, head of the Bertinelli crime family. She grew up in the East Town district of Gotham City. At age six Helena was abducted and molested by a man named Vince (though she later called him “The Smiling Man”) on behalf of a rival crime family. Though she was rescued by the police, it was clear that the experience had taken a heavy toll on Helena. The once cheerful and outgoing girl became quiet and withdrawn.

Guido sent his daughter to school far away from the family, hoping this would make her safer. Guido also assigned her a bodyguard; Sal. Sal acted as Helen’s protector well into her late teens, when Helena went away to college. Leaving Sal behind to attend her cousin’s wedding (assuming she would be safe with all her family), Helena would see her entire family murdered by an assassin known as Omerta the Silencer.

A number of hitmen were sent after Helena after it was discovered that she was still alive. Thanfully, Sal found her first and taught Helena the arts of self-defense, including martial arts and how to use a variety of weapons, including her favorite weapon; the crossbow. In order to disguise herself, as well as increase her own growing confidence, Helena adopted a costume and a new name as she went forth to avenger her family: The Huntress.

Eventually, Helena avenged her family and tracked down the crime lord who was responsible for ordering the hit on her family; a Mafia boss known as Mandargora, who wanted to steal the Bertinelli fortune for himself so he could expand his empire into the United States. She tried to hang up the Huntress title after defeating both Mandaragora and Omerta, but found herself drawn into continuing to help the innocent. She moved to New York to become a vigilante there and would in time come to work alongside Justice League International. She turned down an invitation to join the team but later changed her mind thanks to the mind-bending powers Maxwell Lord possessed at the time. She quite after she learned of the manipulation.

Helena returned to Gotham, perhaps wishing to leave New York and its high metahuman population behind her after her unpleasant experiences with JLI. She found her hometown even more filled with corruption than before. The Mafia families now fought with costumed lunatics for control of the city. Taking on a job as a public school teacher (though still mostly supported by her family fortune, The Huntress took her battle to the streets of Gotham.

It is here, in the gap between her time in JLI and her first appearances in Gotham (Detective #652-653 and the Robin: Cry of the Huntress mini-series), that we find Helena’s first major change. Sometime between her time in New York and the migration to Gotham, Helena’s tactics changed. Whereas she had once been somewhat compassionate and sympathetic, she had become more violent in her methods. Whereas she had been reactionary, she was beginning to take proactive measures to fight crime; get them before they get us. Furthermore, whereas Batman and Robin would risk their own lives to save criminals from accidental death or suicide, Helena had no problems with a criminal blowing themselves up or falling off a building. This change can be credited to Chuck Dixon, writer of Detective Comics and Robin at the time, who turned Helena into a more conflicted character who regularly butted heads with the other vigilantes of Gotham over her methods.

Was this a needless or unbelievable change? On the whole, I think not. It is not unreasonable to think that after having been exposed to supervillains who could kill her at a whim during her time with the JLI, that Helena would feel a bit powerless. Given her past traumatic history and her using The Huntress as a shield personality to the danger around her, it is not unlikely that Helena would react with more force against those who she saw as doing wrong.

This was the status quo for a while; Huntress would be the loose cannon that Batman and company would have to contain as often as the criminals they both sought to stop. While Helena’s behavior as a character was fairly constant during this period during the early to late 90’s, many writers disagreed as to how far she went with her violence. While most had her roughing up thugs a bit more than Batman did and making threats with her crossbow that involved slowing shooting her way up a man’s pant leg toward the family jewels, a scant few stories had her turned into a Punisher who would gleefully shoot the bad guys if she could get away with it.

Still, Huntress did make some friends among the vigilantes of Gotham. She formed an uneasy bond with Robin (Tim Drake) who discovered her secret identity but promised not to tell Batman. She found herself an uneasy ally aside Black Canary and Catwoman on several occasions. She would later try to befriend Nightwing as well, though whether or not she intended to romance her way into the Bat-Family through him or whether their one night stand was something that just happened, is still a hotly debated point by fans today. (You can decide for yourself after reading the new Nightwing/Huntress TP collection of their mini-series.)

Batman, for his part, tried to ease Helena out of vigilantism by noting his disapproval of her and not accepting her as he has other vigilantes with other more violent methods than his own, such as Green Arrow and The Question. This spurning had the opposite effect and just made Helena all the more determined to keep fighting crime and more, to win Batman’s respect.

This would become the great dichotomy of Helena’s character. On the one hand, she wanted to be her own hero and not have to bow to the whims of anyone, following her own life’s experience where you were a victim if you were not totally dependent on yourself. Still, perhaps because of her own lack of family and Batman’s presence as a “father” for all the vigilantes in Gotham, she longed to win his approval.

Despite protesting that Batman is an arrogant and petty dictator as far as his kingdom is concerned, she has still tried to win his approval and endorsement. While he never gave it outright, neither did he act to stop her from fighting crime. He even turned to her to watch the city while he, Nightwing and Robin tracked down Ra’s Al Ghul during the “Legacy” storyline.

When it became clear that pushing against her only made her push back, Batman tried a new tactic in dealing with Huntress. Instead of pushing her away, he tried to subtly mold her. He sponsored her admission into the new Justice League, hoping that she might rise to the non-lethal example set by other heroes of her own accord rather than through constant lecturing and threats.

During this time period, Helena’s character was being written predominantly by Chuck Dixon and Grant Morrison. Dixon’s portrayal of Helena was much the same, save that Helena briefly became somewhat more aggressive during the Gotham “Cataclysm”. In one book, she left behind an opportunistic thug who tried to kill her in order to escape justice as Helena was trying to save the survivors of a subway car crash.

Morrison used Helena surprisingly little during her stint in the JLA, fueling rumors that she was added only to fit Morrison’s vision of the JLA as a “new Olympian Pantheon” with Helena firmly in the Artemis role; a role which had, until then, been filled by the new Green Arrow (virginal archer Connor Hawke) before the ending of his own title and his leaving the Justice League due to feeling ineffectual. Helena had similar feelings, finding some comfort and sympathy from the also unpowered hero Wildcat, during the “Crisis Times Five” storyline. Still, it seemed that she was slowly finding a place among other heroes and becoming more comfortable with the super-powered, even managing to work alongside (or inside) Plastic Man with relative ease to stop the future Flash in DC One Million. Still, despite her growing comfort and increasing ability to play well with others Helena showed very little signs of softening in her approach until the beginning of the No Man’s Lands year-long crossover between all of the Batman books.

Despondent over the fate of his city, Batman disappeared from the city as Bruce Wayne was seen living it up all over Europe. While he was away, the city was left unprotected, save for a few police officers lead by Jim Gordon and a network of informants formed by Oracle. Except for Huntress, the city was completely emptied of costumed protectors. Nightwing busied himself with his new base of Bludhaven. Robin was forced to relocate to Keystone City by his father.

Rather than revel in her newfound independence, Huntress wound up adopting the methods of Batman. Quickly realizing that she had very little reputation outside of the mobsters she usually plagued, Huntress changed her costume to resemble that of Batman from a distance, with a bat symbol and a full face mask to keep her feminine features from being seen from a distance. In this way, she became the new Batrgirl, despite the severe disapproval of Oracle (who was the first Batgirl, in case you forgot!)

Helena also stopped using potentially lethal weapons, favoring hand-to-hand combat in her new costume. This made her job much easier and even won her a small bit of acceptance when Batman returned, noting that while she was not approved, neither was she disapproved of so long as she did not cross the line.

Of course the identity of the new Batgirl was a hotly guarded secret at the time, which was revealed in the aftermath of “Claim Jumping” (Legends of the Dark Knight 119 & Shadow of the Bat 87). It was in this storyline that the new Batgirl (Huntress) was officially fired by Batman after failing to single-handedly stop a devastating surprise attack by Two Face’s gang that resulted in an entire neighborhood being slaughtered.

The Batgirl title and costume were then given (in a story that smacked of editorial mandate) to a newcomer; a mute girl with amazing fighting ability who was named Casandra by Oracle. In response to this snubbing by the entire superhero community (who by this time had gathered at Batman’s request), Huntress joined up with a group of rogue cops that favored death for all those who tormented Gotham City in its darkest hour.

Still, it seemed that her time in the JLA and as the solo vigilante in Gotham had an effect on Helena. For when confronted by the Joker and his men as she protected a group of twenty innocents, Helena resisted the urge to kill, taking three bullets for her trouble. She was rescued by Batman, who went so far as to say “Good work” before she fell unconscious.

Helena’s portrayal at this time was handled by a number of assorted writers, but predominantly Bob Gale, Greg Rucka, Chuck Dixon and Devin Grayson. For the most part, her portrayal throughout NML was a natural progression of what had come before. Despite focusing upon Gotham, she still found some time to work with the JLA and in one issue of that comic, she spoke with Superman about why the JLA did so little to help Gotham directly. (JLA #32)

Still, what would follow after the end of NML would send Helena back into her old habits and send heads flying as her character became more and more inconsistently portrayed. And oddly enough, these blows would come at the hands of the creators who had done so much to lift her out of the post of the generic trouble-maker and make her something truly unique.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.