Hey! It’s one of those dates where American readers can’t shout at me for getting the day and month the ‘wrong’ way round! Hurrah! That’s a relief.
This week was Dennis Hopeless Week, with the writer bringing two new Marvel launches to the world. I’ll be reviewing one of them – the controversy-bathing Avengers Arena - along with two vampire stories and, what the heck, the latest Batman. What better way to wash away all those scary night-loving monsters than with… a third scary night-loving monster. Hm.
This week I’ll be reviewing Batman #15, The Amazing Spider-Man 699.1, Marceline and the Scream Queens #6, and Avengers Arena #1
Batman has proven to be an interesting comic over the last few months. Writer Scott Snyder has thrown an incredible amount of thought and planning into the series, but for some reason none of this seems to be developing into a story. This month’s Batman #15 gives us a short showdown between Batman and the Joker, before setting things up for another showdown which will happen next month. Besides a framing sequence which pauses everything to try and look into the heart of why Batman can never defeat The Joker, the rest of the issue feels rather empty and lifeless.
Surprisingly, this Death of the Family storyline has been dragging almost since the first issue, with The Joker feeling lifeless and dull, rather than chaotic and scary. Beyond the visual image of Joker’s ripped-off face – which itself looks creepy half the time and stupid the other half – there’s nothing to the character here which sells him as a scary villain. His dialogue reads as an homage to Grant Morrison’s super-sexual version of Joker in Arkham Asylum, but without any of the verve or sting. This Joker is simply camp and affectionate, and that doesn’t make the character creepy, rather he seems bloodless and defanged.
Despite the abundance of dialogue and narration boxes, it doesn’t feel like Snyder has gotten beneath the skin of any of the characters involved here, with predictable storytelling and a lot of filler. The majority of this issue is an eight-page sequence where various Batman allies argue over whether Joker once broke into the Batcave a few years ago. This is presented as the core of the story, and something which will drive a wedge between everyone – but there’s no reason for readers to find any of this relatable It doesn’t feel important or real as a story beat, and as a result the thread is diluted.
Overall this storyline has felt perfunctory, with no surprise or intensity in the way The Joker’s plan unfolded. It’s been a disappointment. There’s a backup sequence here which appears to be setting up The Riddler as the next villain for Batman to face – but again, it’s as though everything interesting about the character has somehow drained away. All that’s left are a few tics and very little character. Forget Batman needing to protect Gotham from supervillains – at this rate they’ll all have faded into bland obscurity by next year.
Amazing Spider-Man 699.1, on the other hand, is the sort of story Batman should be telling. Written by Joe Keatinge and drawn primarily by Valentine Delandro, the issue grabs on to a dark and moody character and presents him as genuinely unsettling – yet empathetic at the same time. Despite the title, this is a prologue to the Morbius series Keatinge will be working on with Rich Elson, and as such we get a look at the character’s past and present.
Delandro’s art does a lot of the work for Keatinge here, providing a distinctive representation of the character which makes him look unworldly even before he becomes, well, a vampire. Sorry, spoilers! But that doesn’t mean Keatinge sits back – this is a fascinating character study, which really gets into the skin of the doctor and works a lot of power into the presentation of the narrative. The feeling of horror grows magnificently over the course of the issue, building up and building up until a climax which feels expected, but in a thrilling fashion.
Just because we can tell what will happen by the end of the issue doesn’t mean that the journey towards it isn’t filled with dread in each word, and it doesn’t make the tragedy any less affecting. I didn’t care much for Morbius before this issue – but the creative team have here put together a very strong case for why the series should exist.
If you’re looking for a slightly less terrifying story about vampires, I don’t suggest Marceline and the Scream Queens – because it’s just as scary! Although, much funnier, and a delight. Issue #6 wraps up Meredith Gran’s miniseries with a few nice jabs at the state of comics fandom itself… as well as a vampiric rock concert and plenty of hard nudity.
The story wraps in the expected manner, although you’ll have no chance pre-guessing how Gran gets there. Throughout the series we’ve seen Gran having what looks to be a whirlwind of a time with these characters, bringing out excellent jokes from their personalities whilst not being averse to the odd left-field piece of unexpected nonsense. Issue #6 is very very funny, but weighted with character. Her art is a perfect fit for this ‘world of Adventure Time’ style as well, with her use of body language getting across emotion even when half the characters have dots for eyes.
Lisa Moore’s colouring is also superb, and I was particularly fond of the way Princess Bubblegum’s hair seems to grow brighter and more powerful with every panel, whilst Marceline’s grows somehow blacker. I don’t know if that’s a trick of my eye, but it certainly seemed that way. Eccentric in the very best way, this has been a great miniseries, and a great showpiece for Gran’s art and writing.
Which brings us to Avengers Arena #1. Was this really going to prove a crude cash-grab on the success of the Hunger Games, with snuff and misery? No, no it wasn’t. It was a book with a clever, crafty central conceit, as well as great character work and stunning art from Kev Walker.
The real star of the issue may well be Frank Martin’s work on colours for the book, however, which are at once outlandish and crazy, yet keeping touch on the characters and story. The scenes in Murderworld are gaudy but visually striking for it – which plays into the way Arcade sees the venture. Yet the scenes set outside are cosy and warm, without that feeling of artifice. That is all a result of Martin’s colours. Walker also proves once more to have a solid grip on team stories, with a multitude of characters who all stand apart, and dynamic, exciting storytelling.
Dennis Hopeless’ central contribution to this first issue is the feeling that there is a plan for the book. This isn’t going to be an exploitative title (well, it is, but not in a grotesque way), but instead a character study performed in that rarest of locations: a comic where characters can die forever. It’s startling how quickly removing the barrier of ‘comic book death’ pinballs the book into immediately scary, unpredictable territory. We’re so accustomed to nothing actually ‘mattering’ beyond the next big event, that Hopeless’ freedom here to do whatever he wants to these characters is shocking and riveting.
It’d be worthless if Hopeless didn’t make the characters empathetic, however, and on the basis of this first issue he has a solid grasp on every character he voices here, furthering them as protagonists even whilst making it clear that they could be gone by next issue. Taking away the safety net brings us a chaotic series which can do anything it wants – and a creative team firing on all fronts. This could be the big hit of Marvel Now, if they can keep this up. Which is the big question now, isn’t it?