Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been checking off their “to read” list lately.
Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.
This week I was sent a few comics for review that I really enjoyed in addition to my full review of Count by Ibrahim Mostafa.
First up is Scout Comic’s new series Midnight Western Theatre by Louis Southard, David Hahn, Ryan Cody and Buddy Beaudoin. You can probably guess by the title that this is a western-horror book, and you’d be 100% right. It starts off with a young girl and her dad talking about survival and how she should be brought up in the west vs back east. She needs to learn to survive, then it fast forwards to a town being brutally taken over and slaughtered, kids and all by a gang of murderers. They are sitting down in the now-empty saloon to take a drink when in walks our main characters, a posh man and a woman with scars on her face dressed all in black. From there we see that the man and woman aren’t all they seem. It’s a pretty familiar tale and you can kind of see where things are headed here, but you know what? It’s presented well and I enjoyed it. The artwork is great as I’ve been a fan of Hahn since way back when he was on The Damned with Cullen Bunn. The muted colors that at first almost seemed like spot colors at the begging of the book because the girl’s dress stands out so well, are excellent and fit the tone of the book perfectly. The story, while a bit telegraphed is still told well and I’m interested enough in the main characters that I want to come back for the next issue and see where they are headed. It’s done its job. It whets the appetite and gets the reader coming back for more. Sometimes that’s all a first issue needs to do.
Witchblood by Matthew Erman, Lisa Sterle, Gab Contreras and Jim Campbell from Vault Comics is one of those books where you have no idea what to expect. You can’t prepare yourself, you just strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. I found myself loving this book, with its quirky designed characters, bright designs, and insane story. The main character is a bit chaotic, speaking in what seems like nonsense that I’m sure will all be explained later, but we get fed bits and pieces of this world full of witches, hex hunters, vampires, and desert towns in the middle of nowhere throughout the book. It’s a quick little first issue that still has some meat on the bone to satisfy the reader as it delivers a lot of information by the time the issue was done. After a coincidence leads our main character to confront a hex hunter in a small-town diner in the middle of nowhere in order to get her motorcycle repaired, Vampires show up and get in the middle of everything. That’s pretty much the story in a nutshell and I enjoyed every minute of that craziness. Sometimes you just have to let go and enjoy a book for what it is. I’m ready to keep enjoying this one when issue two comes out.
Dick Grayson is a foundational superhero, not just for DC Comics but for the entire genre. Without Robin the Boy Wonder you might not get Bucky Barnes or Speedy or Toro or Sandy the Golden Boy or even (as responses to kid-sidekick tropes) Spider-Man and the Human Torch. Unfortunately, Dick’s relationship to Batman tends to define him in ways that make it hard to craft a good Nightwing run. Creative teams tend to want to make him Not Batman. Often that involves a certain amount of distance from familiar Bat-trappings like the Wayne wealth, the high-tech gadgetry, the classic Batman foes, and Gotham City itself.
As someone who started reading about Dick/Robin in his mid-1970s Batman Family and Detective college-age period, I have a pretty good idea of what I want in my Nightwing comics, and it is not Not Batman. Instead, it is Fun Batman – an approach which doesn’t shy away from those Bat-elements, and acknowledges that Dick is basically a happier, more well-adjusted version of his mentor. It may be too early to get really excited, but I will say that Nightwing #78 lays some good groundwork for my platonic Fun Batman ideal.
Written by Tom Taylor, drawn by Bruno Redondo and colored by Adriano Lucas, it opens with a flashback that revisits Dick’s relationships with Barbara Gordon, James Gordon, and Alfred Pennyworth – i.e., pretty much all the major Bat-players except for Bruce Wayne. The issue’s main plot proceeds along similar lines, with Babs bringing Dick a final message from Alfred. That revelation has the potential to put Dick back into Bruce’s billionaire-playboy world, which would be a welcome change after so many variations on “what’s Dick Grayson’s day job?”
Otherwise, there’s some setup involving Blüdhaven’s new mayor, whose dad killed the Flying Graysons. It sounds intriguing, but it also reminds me of an Ed Brubaker Batman subplot where Bruce met the daughter of Lew Moxon, the gangster who ordered the Wayne murders. More importantly – and most adorably – Nightwing rescues a stray dog from a gang of miscreants, and Babs predicts he’ll end up adopting it before too long. Sounds about right.
Redondo’s art is open and expressive, with heavy outlines and blacks delineating characters while thinner lines and shading provide details. Lucas’ colors do a lot of work on the backgrounds, some of which don’t appear to have any black lines. The colors also help establish the story’s timeline. As (present-day) Nightwing’s adventure proceeds from sunset to twilight and then to dusk and night, the palette changes from oranges to browns and finally to blues and purples. I can’t decide which DC book from this week looks better, this one or Justice League #59. Nevertheless, Nightwing #78 is another strong introductory issue in what is turning out to be a good March for new DC creative teams.
So after watching a lot of Gotham and getting that itch to read more Batman comics, I settled in with eight issues of the “War of Jokes and Riddles,” Batman #25-32. And the one thing I really took away from it, besides how awkward sideburns look on a guy with slicked back hair, besides the absurdity of the situation in the first place, is… Gotham is a terrible place to live. Just awful. I can’t imagine the horrific poverty that traps people into staying in a city that has death tolls like this. Wars that conquer city blocks, take mass hostages at random, where it’s not just the fear of crime but criminal insanity is commonplace. I know the point of the story was supposed to be how Batman walks the fine line between a man driven by vengeance and a man driven to cross an unspeakable personal line, but the start of the story arc has this rather heartbreaking look at the lives this battle between the Joker and the Riddler takes. Both innocents and mobsters have full names, families. Bruce Wayne sounds heartbroken as he describes the five-day long skirmish between Deathstroke and Deadshot. Five days, he tells us over and over. Pictures of the lives lost as huge background pin-up shots, displayed at prominent moments throughout the comics and yet … none of it mattered. There was no redemption for those dead people, just for Batman. Selina Kyle absolves him of that last-minute impulse. It’s unbalanced and feels jarring read all at once; over the course of eight months I could see how the human side of the story might fade away into the big comic book pows and punches of the finale. Now, after seeing the grand drama that eventually became … well, kind of silly at the end, a story that had something to say and turned out to be, “It’s okay, Batman. I still love you.” I’m kind of wondering what a story about the aftermath of this story would be. What kind of social work needs to be done. Who’s origin story this is. What changes the landscape of the city in the wake of all these explosions and carnage. How the survivors will survive. Maybe this was just the worst week to read this kind of story.
In lighter news, I also read Black Knight: Curse of the Ebony Blade #1, the start of a new series in the life and times of the medieval Avengers from writer Simon Spurrier and artist Sergio Dávila. Dane Whitman is what I would call a “Superfriends” Avenger: a guy they can bring in for group shots to make them a more interesting visual for a superhero team, but not someone they spend a lot of quality time with. He’s there to hold a sword and wear armor to make the spandex set look diverse in power dynamics. I feel like people try to jazz him up some via interpersonal relationships (my first intro the character was his soap opera love triangle between Crystal and Sersi in the ‘90s), but don’t feel comfortable getting into the Arthurian legend from which he came. Which is weird because Camelot is all interpersonal relationships at times and that’s another story.
Spurrier has a lot to introduce in this first issue, kinda reminding me of X-Men Legacy, where he had to get us all on board a Legion ongoing series. Consolidating complicated characters down to relatable concepts seem to be a specialty of his as in this first issue of BK:CotEB #1 brings us Whitman’s conflict as a hero and as …just a lonely guy. An Avenger that’s kind of tolerated for battle but not a guy you’d go grab a beer with. Someone who can’t balance his need to do good with the Ebony Blade’s craving for hate. It’s a loose first issue, nothing but a primer for where the series should be headed, but it’s got my vote to see where things go next.