Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our look at what the Smash Pages crew has been checking off their “to read” list lately. Today’s edition includes thoughts on Batman: Killing Time and a new Shaolin Cowboy miniseries coming this week.
Let us know what you’ve been reading lately in the comments or on social media.
This week I want to tell you about three superhero-comic issues: Earth-Prime #4, Nightwing #92, and Batman/Superman: World’s Finest #3. Each one pushed some nice nostalgia buttons, but I want to say up front that nostalgia shouldn’t be the only reason to read superhero comics. Maybe we need to hear that, maybe we don’t. Still, I’ve been blogging for long enough to recognize that the guys in my particular demographic aren’t the only group that should feel seen or served by the superhero publishers.
Anyway, these three comics seem tailor-made for me, so a slightly guilty hooray! Two of them feature Dick Grayson deep into his Robin career, fighting alongside a Batman with a yellow-ovaled chest insignia. While that sounds superficial, it’s shorthand for “Robin is approaching hypercompetence and Batman’s not a jerk,” which is basically peak Dynamic Duo. For example, in World’s Finest #3, Robin and Supergirl have gone back to ancient China to convince its resident super-team to help them against this arc’s demonic villain. Just one of them is able to immobilize Supergirl, so naturally Robin’s no match for their combined powers. Instead, he drops his weapons, takes off his mask, and pleads his case. Score one for leadership! Meanwhile, over in Nightwing #92, a flashback reveals Robin’s determination to come to the aid of an overmatched victim, no matter how great the odds against him. Nightwing is one of DC’s best books at the moment, with writer Tom Taylor, artist Bruno Redondo, and colorist Adriano Lucas leaning frequently into Dick’s short-pants days in order to inform his current adventures. The current issue is just another standout installment, this time centered around a Bludhaven park dedicated to Alfred Pennyworth.
Back to World’s Finest #3, though – writer Mark Waid, artist Dan Mora, and colorist Tamra Bonvillain have constructed an epic which stretches across its Bronze Age setting. Again, this is a period which should be very familiar to anyone (ahem) who grew up in the latter days of the original Justice League and Teen Titans. Honestly, it’s a period Waid has visited before, in JLA: Year One and the Brave & The Bold series from about 15 years ago. Both times he brought the original Doom Patrol into the overall story, contrasting their unique perspective on superheroics against DC’s more vanilla characters. Here, the Patrol encounter an old foe who’s not quite behaving in a way they expect; and that little twist helps keep the reader off-balance. Meanwhile, the headliners have to deal with their League pals being taken off the board one by one, further disorienting the reader.
I’ve enjoyed Waid’s recent Marvel work quite a bit, but this series really shows off his affection for DC’s characters. Specifically, letting the story range across the DCU, and setting it in the past, allows him to use familiar combinations in – for lack of a better term – less cynical ways. Robin and Supergirl can be an alternate World’s Finest without the story dwelling too much on it; while Batman and Superman haven’t quite settled into patterns familiar to today’s readers. The Gene Luen Yang-written Batman/Superman series used a more stylized “retro” approach (also with a Dick Grayson Robin), but it was more about playing with archetypes and other meta elements. So far, this series presents Batman and Superman’s friendship as just another element in the story, not the “look how different!” perspective that has preoccupied other writers.
Additionally, Mora is just drawing the heck out of this book. Everything is so well-rendered, from the tweaks to Robin and Supergirl’s costumes to the details of ancient China and even the seams on Batman’s shirt. Even if Waid and Mora produce 100 more issues, it won’t seem like enough.
That provides a bittersweet segue into the Earth-Prime miniseries. As viewers of the CW Network’s DC-flavored shows know, “Earth-Prime” is the setting for most of those adventures. (It replaced Earths-1, -2, -X, etc., as a result of the CW’s version of Crisis On Infinite Earths.) Sadly, though, most of the DC shows have aired their final episodes, with only The Flash, Superman & Lois, and Stargirl left on the schedule. DC probably wasn’t expecting that to be the case when it started this miniseries, with each issue focusing on a different CW adaptation.
Stargirl gets the nod in issue #4, with James Robinson (himself a producer on her series) co-writing alongside story editor Paula Sevenbergen. That would be good enough, but the issue also features art by Justice Society stalwart Jerry Ordway. The story finds Courtney Whitmore and family taking a road trip to Yellowstone National Park, where they save some hikers and encounter an old supervillain. Along the way, Ordway draws a majestic two-page spread of the original JSA, a flashback with the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and another spread of various Earth-Prime heroes fighting a villain who has yet to appear on TV. It all feels like an episode of the series, which is obviously the point; but it also feels connected to a larger, more comic-booky version of the CW multiverse which is very welcome. (The CW Crisis didn’t get rid of its multiverse entirely, so Stargirl takes place on a different Earth.) Speaking of which, while most of the issue is devoted to character work, the villains hint at a larger threat undoubtedly requiring a crossover-style team-up. Thanks to the pandemic, there hasn’t been a proper CW crossover in a few years; and thanks to cancellations, there may not be one for a while. This issue was a welcome substitute. It combined the accessible continuity of the TV show with the larger generational connections which are part of the character, and produced a satisfying one-off with the potential for much more.
I don’t want to be that predictable; when people know you are a fan of something, it can get a little repetitive with friends who find some random object in your interest and present it to you like a dog that discovered a soggy stick in the underbrush. “Hey, you like Star Trek so I bought you this air freshener shaped like Chekhov’s hairpiece!” As nerds we all get these gifts so it’s good to try and get more capricious in your interests so that people can’t auto-assume you’d want any old thing as long as it reminds you of better things.
Or you can do what I did and buy yet another DC book because of its cover.
This week, Shadow War Zone #1 came out with an Uncanny X-Men #41 homage cover and I, like a chump, paid money to own it. I don’t know why they used the famous Byrne illustration for Days of Future Past for this, maybe it’s because it’s a well know ‘hit list’ looking artwork? You want to show that Talia al Ghul is tracking down anyone who has ever worked with Deathstroke to eliminate them, throw up a big grid of headshots with some labels on them. Anyhoo, this is the mid-point of the Shadow War event happening the DCU, so I’m coming into this with little understanding of the inter-connected titles of Batman, Robin, Deathstroke Inc. that preceded it.
Shadow War Zone #1 is four short stories about people with other titles or none at all and how they connect to this event, all with differing creative teams for each tale. It’s a sampler, a Civil War Frontline if you will, a way for people like me with no background to learn about this Shadow War and for those invested in the overarching story to take a breather and see what everyone else is up to. The first story by the main creative driver of Shadow War, Joshua Williamson, is a master class on how to start a story in media res and catch you up to speed directly and succinctly. The first page sets the scene so well, I got invested into the rest of the stories in this book and might even poke my head in at the end of the Shadow War to see how it all turns out.
The second is almost a YA short story of Talia al Ghul and her trying teens where she learns about the toll of the Lazarus Pit, drawn in this beautiful dreamlike and colorful style by Sweeny Boo. It’s a treat and really fun for people who may know of Talia al Ghul only from outside media.
The third one is… an attack of the fonts; something like Moon Knight, Spider-Man, and Speedball of all people (okay, they’re new to me characters Ghost-Maker, Black Spider and Clown-Hunter) fight some assassins. It’s over quick and if you’re invested in these characters, it’s a nice mentor-mentee training moment with the world’s most dangerous ninjas. Good fluff, but really nothing to recommend.
Last is a Harley Quinn story about her five minute stint in the Secret Society of Super-Villains (really?) so she’s got ninjas coming after her as well. The actual fight is kinda bad; the artwork is real sketchy with heavier inks that make it just look messy in terms of conveying motion. Harley herself looks like a Saturday Morning Cartoon Show version of herself that doesn’t fit with the most important part of the narrative: Luke Fox’s thoughts on the infamous Harley Quinn. He goes through her usual shtick of manic pixie dream villain and how unpredictable she is, but makes a very astute points of her intelligence and formidable mind. Hard to take it seriously when she’s drooling over a plush unicorn in the middle of a ninja hunt, but his comments are not unfounded. Harley Quinn is a remarkably smart character in the hands of the right writer, but she can also be a cheesecake Clowny Clown Clown time. Which Harley do you get and do you add her to some mysterious team that Luke’s putting together with Lashina? I guess keep reading Shadow War to find out.
Should you buy this book? Yes! Anthology comics are a treat and this one has a really equal spread of genres and style that is sure to hit the palette somewhere with everybody. As someone who didn’t even know Shadow War was a thing going on, I caught right up with the plot in a page and got the action and adventure you come to expect from a story with the League of Assassins. And, if you forgo the siren song of a Days of Future Past variant cover, the newsstand edition should only be $4.99; an easy treat to your comic stack.
Grim #1, from BOOM! Studios, introduces an afterlife mythology that’s reminiscent of the type we’ve seen before — with a hierarchy and bureaucracy that feels sort of DMV or jury duty-ish. It also introduces Jessica Harrow, a reaper tasked with escorting souls to their next life, and the fun begins when her scythe is stolen and she has to return to Earth to reclaim it. There’s a twist at the end that sets up the rest of the story, and it’s a good one, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Stephanie Phillips, Flaviano and Rico Renzi — whose coloring really makes the pages pop in this issue as we move between the real world and the afterlife, giving each setting a distinct feel — take us next issue.
I was a big fan of Brian Schirmer’s fantasy comic Fairlady, with artist Claudia Balboni, which ran for five issues a few years back. In it, Schirmer played with fantasy tropes, mixing them with police procedures and creating something new and interesting in the process. It’s a shame it only ran for five issues, but Quests Aside, from Vault, feels like it’s a natural, spiritual successor. He’s working with artist Elena Gogou, and together they’re creating a Cheers-like bar drama filled with interesting characters and fun plot twists in, again, a fantasy setting. Imagine if all the D&D characters you’ve played over the years — and some of the monsters you’ve fought — worked together at a tavern, hooked up with each other, pinned over each other and, oh yeah, still held long-fuming grudges against kings and the like. It’s fun; the humor comes from the fantasy setting, while the drama comes from the character interactions and the histories we discover about each of them. I can’t wait to find out more.