Last week someone in the comments called me out on not having written any negative reviews. The reason this won’t happen a lot is because no one is handing these reviews to me as assignments – I’m just picking things that people might really enjoy, but may have overlooked because of a lack of exposure, etc. BUT, since it was asked for, the second review today obliges the anonymous commenter who wanted to see a negative review.
BLACKSAD vol. 1 & 2
by Juan Diaz Canales & Guarnido
The deal: Blacksad vol. 1 and Blacksad vol. 2 are both large format books (9″ x 12″). This is to showcase the art, which is full-color watercolor and gouache. Blacksad is a Spanish graphic novel that has been translated into English.
The summary: Blacksad is a series of noir stories told with an anthropomorphic cast. The title character is a black cat detective, and the story in volume 1 opens with the death of his Lady in Red, Natalia. His investigations lead him high and low as he navigating his way through police, street toughs and assassins, ultimately tracking down Natalia’s killer and bringing us to the classic noir conclusion. Volume 2 sees Blacksad picking up a sidekick and tackling the escalating racial tensions in the city and suburbs head-on. White-furred animals and black-furred animals are fighting for supremacy, and Blacksad is caught in the middle as he sleuths, shoots and punches his way to the stunning and unexpected conclusion.
The review: I’ve only read the first two volumes of Blacksad, so I’ve disregarded the third volume for this review.
The first thing people see when they look at Blacksad is the art, and this is emphasized by the large format the books are printed in. These books are gorgeous. They’re done entirely in watercolor (with a few touches of gouache), and every page is just beautiful. The pages are well-composed and dynamic, and the palettes and light values make the art ooze atmosphere. The characters themselves, despite having animal faces and features, are highly expressive, often times oscillating between showing the beauty and ugliness of the same character superbly. The choice of using full-color for a noir story is interesting, but it works to great effect simply because Guarnidos has the skill and vision to make it work.
The story in volume 1 is a classic noir story with a few minor twists. Blacksad is the detective, and Natalia is the classic Lady in Red, but Natalia is dead at the opening of the book. We learn that Blacksad and Natalia shared a relationship at one point, and this gives Blacksad the impetus to take the case on without a client or paycheck in sight. He encounters a colorful array of noir archetypes, represented by different kinds of animals, and as the story moves along the bigger picture unfolds, treating us to a final showdown in classic noir style. While I enjoyed volume 1, the writing was a bit lacking, and this may have had a lot to do with the writer and artist testing the waters and adhering to a formula.
Volume 2 is just as visually stunning as volume 1, but this time the writing is on the mark as well. Canales finds his voice in this volume, tackling the touchy topic of race during a period of segregation (roughly right before Civil Rights in our “human” time). White-furred and black-furred animals butt heads. Murder abounds, as well as kidnapping, blackmail and scandal (even the KKK makes an appearance). The pieces begin to fall into place as Blacksad and his new companion Weekly, a reporter, are propelled into this web of violence, and the hits keep coming even after you least expect them. The ending of volume 1 was satisfying, but I LOVED the ending of volume 2.
I haven’t read volume 3, but I’ll be sure to review it when I get a copy. For those of you out there who like to know how things are done, there is a book called Blacksad: The Sketch Files that gives a VERY thorough rundown of how the books were made, as well as an insightful interview with the artist and writer.
The recommendation: At a first glance, Blacksad may turn some people off because anthropomorphic animals sometimes carry negative connotations. Blacksad was not originally developed with an anthropomorphic cast; it was a decision made later on, when the writer and artist realized it would add another layer to the work. Blacksad is great, but ultimately I find volume 2 to be superior to volume 1. Volume 1 is also out of print – the only way to find it in English these days is to find a used copy floating around on Amazon or somewhere else. Volume 2, Volume 3, and the Sketch Files are all still in print, so the prices are much more reasonable. Volume 2 won a 2005 Harvey Award.
From iBooks, European Comics, 3 volumes, prices vary
ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN
by Frank Miller and Jim Lee
The deal: Frank Miller is the writer of Sin City and 300, two books that have seen cinematic adaptations. He also wrote Dark Knight Returns, which is still considered to be THE definitive Batman book – the one that saved the character from the Biff!Pow!Bang! days of Adam West campiness and redefined him as the darker, grittier character we know him as today. Jim Lee is arguably the most famous comic book artist of the last decade – he helped found Image comics, and his style has been emulated over and over again. DC brought them together to do the highly-anticipated All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder, a no-strings-attached interpretation of the characters that exists in its own continuity (translation: Miller has full artistic license to do whatever he wants).
The summary: All-Star Batman & Robin is a retelling of the story of when Robin joined Batman on his mission to make Gotham City safe. It begins with their first meeting after Robin’s parents are killed; Batman takes young Dick Grayson under his wing and brings him to the Batcave, where he begins to train Dick for the war ahead.
The review: Reception to this book was controversial, but I don’t really think there’s any controversy: this book is just bad. Really, really bad.
Dark Knight Returns is going to be one of my favorite comics until the day I die. I’m not really a reader of superhero comics, but it’s a watershed landmark of a book. On a scale, I like Frank Miller’s writing on Ronin, Sin City, 300 and Batman: Year One pretty okay to a lot. So I feel justified in saying that this book is not only the worst book Miller has ever written (yes, including Dark Knight Strikes Again), but is also one of the worst comic books every written, period.
Miller isn’t writing Batman in this book – he’s writing a drunk, rowdy PEDOPHILE (I’ll get to this) fratboy in a Batman costume. This Batman is an asshole, and not in the way they we’ve all come to love Batman being an asshole – so he can get results quickly – no, this Batman is an asshole because it’s fun. There’s no sharp detective mind here – there’s a guy from Jackass who wants Dick Grayson to eat rats in the Batcave to “toughen him up”. This Batman acts like a spoiled brat who likes to show off all his cool toys to the other kids on the block – he always tells people how cool his Batmobile, to which the standard running answer is “You call it the Batmobile? That’s gay.”
Alright, I’m sure you guys are wondering about my capitalized PEDOPHILE in the previous paragraph. Maybe Miller was trying to create some sort of dialogue or commentary on the weird relationship between a grown man and a boy running around in tights. So, he wrote some lines to underscore the inherent potentially homoerotic undertones there, only there’s a problem: there’s no underscoring going on here. What we have instead is a guy with a big fat red pen writing “BATMAN IS A GAY PEDOPHILE BATMAN IS A GAY PEDOPHILE BATMAN IS A GAY PEDOPHILE BATMAN IS A GAY PEDOPHILE” over and over again, and then circling it repeatedly afterwards just for good measure. We start with someone saying “This kid’s amazing,” to which Bruce Wayne replies, “Yeah, I’ve had my eye on him for a while. He’s something, all right.” Those italics are in the book, but fine – this isn’t blatant. Neither is the repeated use of, “Dick Grayson, Age Twelve”, which becomes sort of a mantra as the series progresses. No, we graduate to blatant when we get to issue 9, where Batman is having Robin paint an entire room yellow. We’re treated to Batman’s inner monologue here, where he tells us over and over again that he is smarter than everyone else, everyone is an idiot, and oh yeah the Green Lantern’s weakness is the color yellow and boy is that stupid. Batman is looking up at Dick Grayson in his Robin tights on a ladder as he paints and complains to his “mentor”. Over Dick’s tirade, Batman inner-monologues, “Fast hands, my little Robin. Fast hands, big mouth.”
This is all underlined by Frank Miller’s standard WHORESWHORESWHORES. I think Wonder Woman (a manhater in this particular iteration) calls someone a “sperm bank” at one point, and all of the women besides her can’t stop telling Batman they love him/throwing themselves at him.
I’ve ragged on Miller’s writing for long enough, but I haven’t really talked about Jim Lee’s art. He’s a good artist, but truth be told, I don’t really think his style suits Batman. This is purely my personal opinion, but Batman is a gritty character and tends to stick to the shadows, and Jim Lee doesn’t seem to utilize shadows well, and everything about his art is very clean cut. Even when Batman has stubble, he seems clean cut. Also, the contrast of his art against Frank Miller’s writing seems incredibly awkward. I actually feel bad for Jim Lee – he must get a script each month and go, ” … goddamit.” Jim Lee’s art would be better suited for a Superman/Batman team-up, probably.
So I feel I’ve built a good case against anyone ever thinking this book is good. What I will say is that this book can be entertaining. No one really knows if Frank Miller is fucking with his readers on purpose – maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. I personally have to believe that he’s doing it on purpose. One thing is true, regardless of what you believe: All-Star Batman & Robin is HILARIOUS. If I start reading it, I can’t stop laughing. This is exemplified by the way Batman introduces himself to Robin, “What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I’m the goddamn BATMAN.”
The recommendation: Borrow this from someone if you’re curious, but seriously, don’t buy it. It’s awful. If you’re curious about the comedic value I mentioned I earlier, I point you towards two columns at i-mockery.com – “All Suck Batman and Robin and Frank Miller is Still Insane. They’re a riot.
From DC, American Comics, $2.99 and any sense of good taste