What Are You Reading? | ‘Batman: Fortress,’ ‘The Closet’ and more

See what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately, which includes ‘Avengers Forever,’ ‘JLA Classified,’ ‘Little Monsters,’ ‘Strange’ and more.

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 reviews include some Batman, some Justice League, some Avengers and some horror comics.

Let us know what you’ve been reading lately in the comments or on social media.

Tom Bondurant

This week I’ll start with the first issue of Batman: Fortress, written by Gary Whitta, drawn by Darick Robertson and colored by Diego Rodriguez. It is set in the evergreen continuity where Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth are still around, and it has a similarly uncomplicated premise: What if Earth faced an extraterrestrial invasion and Batman was the first to respond? Whitta and company actually frame this as “what if Superman’s not available to stop it,” which I don’t think is as dramatic as they might imagine. Even without Superman, the Earth has scads of superhuman protectors, many of whom approach the Man of Steel’s power levels. You’re probably listing them right now.

It’s therefore a little unexpected that Fortress #1 doesn’t go immediately to that big-picture perspective. It even seems to acknowledge that the rest of the League is out there, dealing with the global power failure that is apparently the invasion’s first phase. Instead, issue #1 is all about Batman trying to keep a lid on things in a blacked-out Gotham. As a practical matter, that means it’s a Batman comic with a lot of nighttime scenes (albeit darker than usual) where he confers with Gordon by the Bat-Signal and beats up some signature baddies, including the Joker. None of it’s bad, and Robertson gives the book a very clean, detailed look; but there’s not much to distinguish this from an average Batman comic. Clearly the creative team is going for a slow, ominous burn, so I’m hoping that issue #2 takes readers in a different direction.

In order to compare and contrast, I re-read Grant Morrison and Ed McGuinness’ inaugural arc from JLA Classified #s 1-3 (January-March 2005). With most of the League on a mission to another dimension, Batman’s the only one around to deal with Gorilla Grodd subjugating the floating city of Superbia and its super-powered Ultramarine Corps. Much of the early action concerns the Ultramarines, who are basically the Global Guardians with an Authority attitude. Issue #2 finds Batman opening his “sci-fi closet” to unleash a squad of Leaguer-mimicking androids, and issue #3 has the rest of the League returning to defeat Grodd and his pawns. It’s a little darker than the rest of Morrison’s JLA work, mostly because he turns Grodd into a slavering monster who looks forward to cooking and eating Batman (along with as much of humanity as he can literally stomach); but it ties into All-Star Superman and leads into Seven Soldiers, so it’s worth a read. McGuinness complements Morrison pretty well, whether he’s drawing the slightly cartoony Ultramarines or the ravenous Grodd. Anyway, not surprisingly, Batman comes across as more prepared (and arguably more capable) than he is so far in Fortress. That’s the Morrison Batman for you, I guess.

And since we’re on the subject, this week I read the anthology one-shot Justice League: Road to Dark Crisis, written and drawn by a bunch of people and exploring various heroes’ reactions to the apparent death of the main Justice League. The main characters here (each starring in different stories) are Nightwing and the Classic Wally West Flash, each of whom talk about how they reacted to their mentors’ previous “deaths.” The other stories feature Aquaman (Jackson Hyde) teaming up with Green Lantern Hal Jordan; Spoiler/Batgirl Stephanie Brown stopping a Nocturna heist; and Pariah going from emo universe-hopper to apparent Dark Crisis antagonist.

Again, what’s interesting to me is that this is not the first time DC has sidelined the Justice League – or at least the seven A-listers in its current starting lineup – to make a point about its latest event. (Never mind that Hal Jordan was a founding Leaguer and Earth’s most experienced GL, but he’s kind of in the background now.) Joshua Williamson and Dan Jurgens do a good job with Nightwing and Jon Kent in the lead story, and Jeremy Adams and Rosi Kämpe likewise produce an effective Flash/Kid Flash story using the two Wallys. When you live in a world where death is either impermanent or not what it seems, you might necessarily have different ways to process your grief, and this issue demonstrates that without getting too much in the weeds about it. As a primer for what I assume will be some of Dark Crisis’ main characters, it’s probably fine. I am no judge of what makes a good entry-level book, because I am about 35 years past entry-level. Ironically, this book might also have been good for the DC Universe of 2010-11, where Batman was presumed dead, Superman was off-world on New Krypton for much of the year, Wonder Woman was doing something weird under the pen of J. Michael Stracyzinski, and Dick Grayson was leading a bunch of his peers (including Donna Troy, Jade and Jesse Quick) in their version of the Justice League. Throw in 5 years of the New 52 and a few more of post-Rebirth straightening-up, and DC’s pretty much back to where it was during Barack Obama’s first term.

Changing gears only slightly – you’ll understand why shortly – I have been enjoying Strange, the Clea-as-Sorcerer-Supreme book written by Jed Mackay in the wake of the Death of Doctor Strange miniseries. Issue #3 was pencilled by Marcelo Ferreira, inked by Roberto Poggi and (not that) Don Ho, and colored by Java Tartaglia. Currently Clea is trying to corral all of New York’s magic-based gangsters, so the issue opens with her putting the squeeze on a low-level functionary. There are some investigations, some detective work, and a car chase, and part of the way through I started thinking “this is basically a Batman book.” Since Clea has succeeded Stephen Strange, it may even be a Dick Grayson Batman book, with Wong as Alfred. That’s hardly a criticism, because the book stands well on its own. Ferreira, Poggi, Ho and Tartaglia put together some effective action sequences, but I also liked the more casual Clea/Wong interactions. The current Sorcerer Supreme may want to revive her beau, but as far as I’m concerned there’s no hurry.

Finally, I read Avengers Forever #6, written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Jim Towe, with Guru-eFX on colors. There’s not a lot of Batman in this one, but it does involve the last son of Wakanda being sent off into space on a rocket to avenge his people. Yes, it’s another multiversal downer about an amped-up version of a Marvel villain – this time Killmonger – rampaging his way across the parallel planes, murdering every version of T’Challa he can get his Destroyer-armored mitts on. This book’s T’Challa has fashioned the Vibranium from his natal rocket into a suit of impregnable armor, and figures to take down Killmonger by … becoming Spider-Man? Okay, sure. I guess we needed that part of the story to get to the last page, which is where the issue becomes important for AF’s overall journey. Still, this was the kind of thing I would read in one of those oversized Death Metal one-shots (or, more to the point, one of the Heroes Reborn tie-ins) and keep in the back of my mind for later. It just makes the bad guys more hissable, and increases the reader’s need for sweet retribution.

JK Parkin

The Closet started life on James Tynion IV’s Substack as one of many comics the writer is offering through the service. Of the many comics he’s offered through the platform, I believe it’s also the first one to make its way to print, courtesy of Image Comics.

As far as horror comics go, it’s an effective one, as Tynion and artist Gavin Fullerton take a common, almost cliche childhood fear — the thing in the closet — and turn it on its head a bit with a twist: what if that monster in the closet was not only real, but planned to follow you to your new house when you moved? There’s a wordless sequence near the end of this first chapter that Fullerton and colorist Chris O’Halloran absolutely nail, creating a sense of creepiness and real fear that can be hard to capture in a comic … no sound effects or scary music needed.

Speaking of scary stories, let’s stick with that theme. Little Monsters is a series by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen, and published by Image Comics. It’s about vampire children at the end of the world, and for the last few issues we’ve seen them as that — eternal children, playing games and entertaining themselves amidst the rubble of a fallen society. Last issue we found out that they are not, in fact, the last beings on Earth, that there are still humans around, and our “little monsters” go from being kids to the predatory monsters in the title. That’s the lure of vampires, right? That they’re capable of being sympathetic until, suddenly, they aren’t. Lemire’s done a nice job of setting up each character in their little pack, telling us their back story and how they became what they are, giving a sense of tragedy to the whole situation. And Nguyen’s mostly black and white, shadowy artwork — with splashes of color at just the right time — set the mood perfectly.

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