What Are You Reading? | ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’ offers an ‘uncomplicated, undemanding set of Batman tales’

Also: An advanced review of Vault’s ‘The Blue Flame” and more!

Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been checking off their “to read” list lately. This week we look at the new iteration of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, the new Fantastic Four: Life Story, past issues of Doctor Aphra and The Blue Flame #1, which will arrive in comic shops later this week.

Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.

Tom Bondurant

This week DC launched Legends of the Dark Knight, a new Batman anthology series whose title mirrors the original Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight series. That series debuted in the fall of 1989, back when there were (gasp!) only two ongoing Batman-centered comics. Needless to say, times have changed, and a reader might wonder whether the world needs another Batman anthology. However, the main-line Bat-books seem headed for a very nontraditional setting. Alfred has been dead for a while, Bruce Wayne no longer has unlimited resources, and a paramilitary force is poised to take control of Gotham City.

Thus, if the inaugural story in the new LOTDK (“Bad Night, Good Knight”) is any indication, the series might fill a reader’s need for a relatively uncomplicated, undemanding set of Batman tales. Written and pencilled by Darick Robertson, inked by Robertson and Richard P. Clark, and colored by Diego Rodriguez, the issue kicks off what looks like a perfectly cromulent battle with the “Gas Mask Killer.” There’s an anonymous Russian arms dealer in town, Commissioner Gordon waits forlornly as the Bat-Signal pierces the night sky, and Batman runs through a mental checklist of all his old foes who might be one of the new guy’s clients. This means fights with the Penguin, Mister Freeze, and the Joker, each lovingly rendered by Robertson and Clark with a sort of Bronze Age brutalism, as if José Luis Garcia-Lopéz had used thicker lines. Maybe there’s a post-modern twist coming in issue #2, and perhaps there’s more to this story than just Batman solving a mystery and punching a murder clown. Still, sometimes that’s all you really want out of a Batman comic, and so far the new LOTDK has it.

I also read Fantastic Four: Life Story #1, written by Mark Russell, drawn by Sean Izaakse, and colored by Nolan Woodard. As with Spider-Man: Life Story, its concept is that the FF have been aging in real time since their 1961 debut; so this story begins with Reed Richards meeting President Kennedy, who’s eager for a win in the space race. I won’t go deep into the details, because Russell cleverly melds two classic Lee/Kirby stories to build to an ending which hangs ominously over a more upbeat epilogue. Still, the miniseries’ decade-per-issue format doesn’t do Russell any favors. Things like the FF’s team name and uniforms get dropped on them, when they could have been established behind the scenes; but major character elements like Ben’s struggles with his transformation don’t get the attention they deserve. This may be because Russell omits a couple of major FF characters, if not the bulk of the FF’s classic adventures. The team seems to spend the 1960s being celebrities, doing science and joining in the decade’s social activism, while only occasionally fighting supervillains. (Maybe the Avengers and Spider-Man, who get cameos at Reed and Sue’s wedding, picked up the slack.) Presumably Russell is saving those elements for greater effect later on, but they’re still conspicuously absent. Anyway, I liked the issue well enough, and I like Russell and the FF generally, so I’ll be back for #2.

Finally, I have been re-reading the first volume of Doctor Aphra, which spun out of the Kieron Gillen-written Darth Vader series in 2017. At the moment I am up to April 2019’s issue #29, written by Si Spurrier, drawn by Emilio Laiso and colored by Rachelle Rosenberg. It’s headed for the conclusion of “Worst Among Equals,” a storyline which finds Aphra yoked to her evil protocol-droid colleague Triple-Zero and on the run from an undead lawman animated by a Force-infused fungus. Trust me, that’s the short version. What I am appreciating about this arc, and Aphra generally, is just how skillfully the series balances its light and dark elements. Although that may sound kind of obvious for a Star Wars series, with Doctor Aphra it’s not quite what you think.

See, Aphra and company could easily be characterized as parodies of the classic SW characters. She wears what looks like Luke Skywalker’s cap and goggles from those deleted scenes on Tatooine; she’s an archaeologist, which is naturally SW-adjacent; and her associates include literally darker versions of C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. On one level this makes Doctor Aphra a black comedy, as Aphra cheats and cons her way across the galaxy. (She may come across like Indiana Jones, but she isn’t above Belloq’s methods.) As fun as that is – and it is pretty fun – it also builds her list of enemies; and so in “Worst Among Equals,” all those mynocks start coming home to roost. Issue #29 furthers that plot, but adds the satirical components of Aphra and Triple-Zero becoming reality-TV stars (as their plight is broadcast across planet Milvayne) and the intervention of the Empire’s ruthless public-relations department. Along the way Aphra unwittingly quotes young Anakin Skywalker as part of her plea for help, which is just one more example of the series’ vast reserves of irony. Aphra herself may never have a happy ending, but it’s fascinating to see her journey.

JK Parkin

The Blue Flame #1 is a new title by Christopher Cantwell, Adam Gorham, Kurt Michael Russell, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou and Tim Daniel, and I’m listing all of these gentleman here because they all brought their best in putting together the first issue. It will debut in shops this Wednesday. Vault Comics was kind enough to send over an advanced look at the first issue, and boy am I happy they did.

The comic starts off with a story set in space, as our hero explores uncharted cosmos and lands on an as-yet-unexplored planet. It’s a scene that could have appeared in any Silver Age comic from the past (but probably one starring Adam Strange), and the creators lean in on that. Let’s start with Otsmane-Elhaou’s lettering on the first page:

which expertly captures the vintage, pulpy look and feel of sci-fi comics from that era. It fits well against the Ditko-esque galaxies that Gorham and Russell provide to set it against, and that pair totally outdo themselves on the space scenes. Check out the second and third pages:

From there, we meet an alien race that has their own agenda for The Blue Flame, and raise the stakes not just for him, but for the entire human race …

…and then we’re back on Earth, in cold Wisconsin, where HVAC repairman named Sam Brausam goes through his slog of a day with the reward of appearing at a convention with his fellow small-time vigilante superheroes. Were his cosmic adventures a dream, or imaginary? An alternate reality? Or something in his past or future? We don’t know at this point, which is one of the fun parts of the comic. We jump from epic space to Midwestern winter, from grand stakes to deciding what pizza to have before the convention.

Both parts of the story are well done — Cantwell fleshes out not only Sam, but the other members of his team, the Night Brigade, setting up some interesting relationships between them all. And the question of how the two pieces relate to each other is intriguing enough to make me want to read the next issue right now.

I should also add that this first issue has several variant covers, and you can tell they had a lot of fun coming up with them, as they leaned in heavily on homages to comics like New Frontier, DarkHawk, Secret Wars and the Rocketeer:

I can’t wait to see where this one goes.

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