Review, Darwyn Cooke memorial edition: Batman: Ego and Other Tails

Darwyn Cooke, who passed away last month, was perhaps best known for his masterpieces, DC: The New Frontier (2004), the Parker series (2009-2013), and Before Watchmen: Minutemen (2012-2013). His lesser known earlier stories for DC are collected in the trade paperback, Batman: Ego and Other Tails (2007).

3 panels from Batman: Ego by Darwyn Cooke

Ego: A Psychotic Slide into the Heart of Darkness a.k.a. Batman: Ego (first published 2000, 62 pages)

After he fails to capture a criminal alive, Batman returns to the batcave, where Bruce Wayne is haunted by a monstrous version of his Batman persona. Like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, this apparition lets Bruce revisit traumatic past events, and urges Bruce to renounce his ‘no killing’ creed.

In the introduction to the TPB, Cooke considers Ego “an earnest yet flawed first effort”. The biggest flaw is probably the colouring, which was apparently done by Cooke himself. An overuse of gradient effects and some unfortunate tonal choices considerably weaken the overall impression despite the beautiful line work. There’s also some heavy-handed dialogue. Apart from that, Ego is an outstanding Batman story.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Here Be Monsters (2002, 8 pp.)

Another Batman comic, albeit written by Paul Grist and drawn in black and white by Cooke. Once again, Batman experiences mental breakdown and is haunted by hallucinations, this time induced by poison. And once again, his fierce side threatens to take over. Here Be Monsters is a nice little story with striking artwork, but reading it after Ego feels redundant.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score (2002, 85 pp.)

Catwoman and some accomplices set up a major train robbery, but of course things go terribly wrong. Though ostensibly set in the present day, the overall design and some anachronistic references to e.g. I Love Lucy and Angie Dickinson betray Cooke’s fondness for the 1950s. This is the longest story in this TPB, and there’s (almost) no Batman in it. In comparison to Ego, it benefits immensely from Matt Hollingsworth’s colouring. The only problem with the artwork is Cooke’s character designs, as two of the major male characters, Stark and Slam Bradley, are hard to tell apart. As for the content, I found the relationship between Catwoman and Stark unconvincing and at odds with my perception of Selina as a strong and independent woman.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

The Monument (2002, 8 pp.)

Another black-and-white comic, written by Cooke and drawn by Bill Wray, this delightfully silly little story is about a statue erected in honor of Batman. While Wray’s over-the-top, cartoonish art style fits the tone of the story, it dominates the comic to such a degree that it doesn’t feel like a Darwyn Cooke comic (or a Batman comic, for that matter).

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Date Knight (2004, 11 pp.)

Another silly short comic written by Cooke and illustrated by Tim Sale, in which Catwoman likens a fight with Batman to a romantic rendezvous. Not much of a story, but it captures the essence of the protagonists’ love-hate relationship.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Deja Vu (2005, 13 pp.)

This comic is a remake of the 1974 Batman story “Night of the Stalker” by Vin & Sal Amendola, Steve Englehart and Dick Giordano. Composed in a rigid 2 × 4 layout, this remake is written, drawn and coloured by Cooke, and this time it’s a pleasure to behold. Particularly as a colourist, Cooke seems to have had learned a lot since Ego. Once again there’s not much of a story here – Batman hunts down a gang of jewel robbers, some of which also appear in Selina’s Big Score.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

2 panels from Deja Vu by Darwyn Cooke

Overall verdict: Obviously, Batman: Ego and Other Tails is highly relevant for those interested in Darwyn Cooke’s comics, and – while not on the same level as his aforementioned later works – will not disappoint them. Apart from that, this trade paperback can be considered required reading for readers with an interest in the characters of Batman (mainly due to the title story) and/or Catwoman (due to Selina’s Big Score, although this story has also been published as a standalone TPB).

Rosalind Krauss’s grids – in comics?

[This post was originally planned to be published in March in conjunction with Women’s History Month, but then I became ill and couldn’t finish it in time.]

Whenever comics scholars hear the word “grid”, they immediately think of comics. This is due to panels on a comic page often forming a grid-like layout. One of the field’s journals is even named The Comics Grid, which only shows how strong this perceived connection is. People outside of the comics world, however, might have a somewhat different idea of what a grid is. Take Rosalind E. Krauss, for instance. In 1979 she published an essay titled “Grids” (collected in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernists Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986, pp. 11-22) and returned to the topic two years later in “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” (in the same book on pp. 151-170; the section on grids is on pp. 157-162). Here’s a quote from the latter (p. 158):

The absolute stasis of the grid, its lack of hierarchy, of center, of inflection, emphasizes not only its anti-referential character, but – more importantly – its hostility to narrative. This structure, impervious both to time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence.

That doesn’t sound like comics at all, does it? Part of the problem might be, Krauss never defines what she means by “grid”. This would have been a good idea though, because even in mathematics there doesn’t seem to be a commonly agreed definition.¹ From the examples pictured in her essay, it looks like she means two different types of grid images: one in which a grid is formed by sets of drawn (or painted, etc.) parallel lines (e.g. Agnes Martin’s paintings), and another in which these lines are only implicitly formed by the borders of rectangles (e.g. Jasper Johns’s Gray Numbers, to which we’ll get back later in this post).

Both types can be found in comics, too. The former is the more common layout. However, the following example might look unusual at first:

a page from Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, vol. 2

a page from Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, vol. 2

This is a 1×3 panel layout alright, the dominant layout in The New Frontier. It only becomes a grid, though, if you allow the white page borders to form grid lines too, along with the two proper gutters between the panels (even though their widths are different):

a page from Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, with added grid overlayMore on this layout in a minute.

For the second type of grid, the one with the implicit lines, consider this example:

a page from Karuho Shiina's Kimi ni Todoke, vol. 7

a page from Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke, vol. 7

There are 5 panels, but no gutters: the 3 panels of the upper row are divided by black borders (whereas the 2 in the lower row don’t have any border between them), but as we can see from the white strip on the right hand side of the page, the page background is white, not black, so there’s no page background visible between the panels and thus there are no proper gutters. What makes it furthermore difficult to discern the grid are the bleeds to the top, left, and bottom of the page. Still, this page can essentially be regarded as a 2×3 panel layout (with the 4th panel² overlapping into the 5th, and the 5th panel spanning two columns):

a page from Karuho Shiina's Kimi ni Todoke, with added grid overlayOnce you start paying attention to these things, the variety of Karuho Shiina’s layouts is amazing. It would be fun to see how many pages into Kimi ni Todoke a page layout is repeated for the first time, but I’ll leave this exercise for another time.

Krauss doesn’t expressly distinguish implicit and explicit grids, but she makes another interesting distinction: centrifugal vs. centripetal.³ A centrifugal reading of a work of art assumes that “the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity” (p. 18). The image is “a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric”, thus “compelling our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame”. A centripetal work of art, on the other hand, is “an autonomous, organic whole” (p. 19).

From the examples discussed by Krauss, it looks like this distinction is simply a question of cropping: if the grid lines end where the image ends, it’s a centrifugal image. If the grid lines end within the image borders (so that they’re strictly speaking only line segments, not lines proper), it’s a centripetal image. If we want to apply this categorisation to comics, we have to once more be careful not to confuse panel borders with gutters. On Cooke’s New Frontier page, all panel borders are visible, but the imaginary rectangles that continue the grid in all four directions beyond the three panel rectangles are not. Therefore, we cannot say that the gutters (which form our grid here) end at certain points, e.g. the page borders. Thus this page is a centrifugal image. With Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke page it’s not so easy to tell: here, the white page background on the right acts as a delimiter of the (implicit) grid rays, which exit the page only to the top, left, and bottom. To visualise this view on the page, I coloured each of the 5 panels and the page border differently:

layout diagram of a Kimi ni Todoke pagePerhaps the overall character of this page is still centrifugal, but not quite as much so as in the New Frontier example.

One final remark about the purported “hostility to narrative” of the grid: I think Krauss proves herself wrong by picturing Jasper Johns’s Gray Numbers. In this painting, each rectangle of the grid (except for the top left one) is filled with a numeral between 0 and 9. Let’s look at a random rectangle, say, the middle one in the bottom row. It’s a 4. The rectangle above it is a 3. The one on the left is also a 3. On the right there’s a 5, and next to the 5 there’s a 6… You get the idea. Obviously, there is a pattern here. From the top left to the bottom right corner, the numerals form a sequence – either horizontally or vertically – in which the number is increased by 1 until it is reset to 0 when it would otherwise reach 10. My point is: it matters little what’s inside the rectangles, because we have a tendency to see grids as sequences. And (while the precise meaning may be a matter of debate) a meaningful sequence at that – which amounts to, for all intents and purposes, a narrative. Only completely empty or uniform grids (e.g., again, Agnes Martin’s) resist this reading as a narrative.

All that being said, it should be noted that none of it is really the point of Krauss’s essays, which are more concerned with the grid as a typical form of modernist painting within the discourse of originality and repetition.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

¹ See e.g. the keyword “grid” at Wolfram MathWorld and the article “Regular grid” at Wikipedia.
² The reading order is right to left here, so the 4th panel is the bottom right one and the 5th panel the bottom left one.
³ More precisely, Krauss acknowledges that this discourse predates her essay. She cites John Elderfield, “Grids”, Artforum X (May 1972), 52-59.

Before Watchmen: some final thoughts

Before Watchmen roundup, part 4

The Comedian through the ages: in Before Watchmen: Minutemen, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias

The Comedian through the ages: in Before Watchmen: Minutemen, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias

For the time being, Before Watchmen is over. The collected editions will be published soon, and we’ll have to wait and see if they turn out to be bestsellers. So far, it’s safe to say that the sales performance of the Before Watchmen comic books didn’t meet expectations, and the critical reception wasn’t enthusiastic either. On the other hand, I doubt that DC’s decision to pursue this project against the will of Watchmen creator Alan Moore will do them much harm in the long run. But will the Before Watchmen comics themselves be remembered? Here’s why I think they – or at least the four series I’ve read – should (or shouldn’t).

Before Watchmen: Ozymandias by Len Wein and Jae Lee: No one really needed to read this story, which blends re-told scenes we’ve already read in Watchmen (e.g. the Crimebusters meeting) with scenes that Moore left untold – most likely because they simply weren’t that relevant (e.g. the Kennedy assassination). Probably most people were reading it only because of Jae Lee’s art anyway, which once more turned out to be stunning indeed. This is a relatively rare example of a superhero comic not story-driven or character-driven, but art-driven. Presumably, Wein’s and Lee’s strategy was to create something visually different from the original Watchmen comic, because they knew they couldn’t match it. While Ozymandias isn’t necessarily the best Before Watchmen comic, it’s maybe the most interesting one regarding the relationship between prequel and original.
Final Verdict: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke: Now that was one plot twist that I hadn’t seen coming. The ending ties the story into a coherent package, making Minutemen a more self-contained comic than Ozymandias. The ways in which it relates to Watchmen are nevertheless intricate, too. More importantly, though, this is very much a Darwyn Cooke comic, particularly visually, and I can imagine it will be remembered as a logical continuation of his previous “retro” works, e.g. The New Frontier.
Final Verdict: ● ● ● ○ ○

Before Watchmen: Rorschach by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo: The second half of this four-part series confirmed my suspicion that this was going to be a rather unexceptional story. Maybe Azzarello wanted to indicate that the death of the waitress made Rorschach even less sociable, turning him into the character we know from the original series. And yes, the villain wearing Rorschach’s mask is a powerful scene. But apart from that, this comic is only recommended for people who want to exhaustively survey the Azzarello/Bermejo cosmos (or the whole Before Watchmen “event”, for that matter).
Final Verdict: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner: I’ve already reviewed the complete series, and I still think it’s a solid comic, as long as you don’t compare it to Watchmen. If Amanda Conner’s comic output continues on such a high level of quality, Silk Spectre might go down in comics history as the series that put her name on the map for many readers.
Final Verdict: ● ● ● ○ ○

There are three Before Watchmen series I haven’t read in their entirety (plus the shorter Curse of the Crimson Corsair, Moloch and Dollar Bill):

The final issue of Before Watchmen: Comedian has been reviewed by Jesse Shedeen at IGN and Matthew Peterson at Major Spoilers.

For Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan, see this favourable review of #4 by Poet Mase at IGN.

If you’re interested in Before Watchmen: Nite Owl, I recommend the review of the final issue by Greg McElhatton at CBR.

Before Watchmen roundup, part 3: Silk Spectre

silk_spectre_3Review of Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1-4 (of 4)

Language: English
Authors: Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner (writers), Amanda Conner (artist), Paul Mounts (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 22-24 (+2 pages of backup story)
Price: $3.99

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre tells exactly the story you would expect from a prequel: an origin story. In the case of Laurie, the second Silk Spectre, a suitable ending of her story is obviously the Crimebusters meeting in 1966 (Watchmen #2, p. 9, and Watchmen #4, p. 17), and indeed this is the final scene in Silk Spectre #4. But where to begin, when the protagonist has been trained from earliest childhood to become a superhero? Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner have invented an episode in Laurie’s life that fulfils that purpose of an origin story: she runs away from home, goes out crime-fighting at night on her own, and defeats her first villain (a drug dealer).

This narrative outline is the most successful of all the Before Watchmen books, because it is the most self-enclosed story while still serving as a prequel to Watchmen. Minutemen and Ozymandias suffer from being too intricately interwoven with the original story, whereas the story of Rorschach seems too detached from the events in Watchmen to appear meaningful (at least so far). However, the connection between Silk Spectre and Watchmen isn’t one of simple succession either. On the one hand, there are a lot of allusions, both visual and verbal, to events in the past (i.e. before Silk Spectre) involving Sally Jupiter and the Minutemen. On the other hand, there is a lot of foreshadowing, my favourite instance being in issue #3 where one character says to Laurie, “I want you to live like the world’s gonna end… I dunno. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in six months. Maybe in nineteen years.” – 19 years from 1966, that’s 1985, when the world almost comes to an end in Watchmen.

That being said, the connection to Watchmen isn’t entirely unproblematic: for example, I find it hard to believe that the whole story of Silk Spectre takes place in only a few months. And yet it must be so, because it starts on an unspecified day in 1966, and in May 1966, Laurie is already on patrol with Dr. Manhattan (Watchmen #4, p. 18).

Visually, Silk Spectre comes closer to the rigid nine panel grid of Watchmen than the other Before Watchmen books, but apart from that, the styles of Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts are a far cry from those of the original artists, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. Both the art and the writing have a certain lightness to them, which creates an atmosphere far more cheerful than that of Watchmen. But wasn’t precisely that grim and gloomy tone one of the greatest achievements of the original series?

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Before Watchmen roundup, part 2: Minutemen and Rorschach

Last month I looked at Before Watchmen: Ozymandias, the storytelling of which I found disappointing. This month I’m going to look at two Before Watchmen titles which refer to the original Watchmen series in somewhat different ways.

from Minutemen #1 by Darwyn Cooke / DC ComicsReview of Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1-3 (of 6)

Language: English
Authors: Darwyn Cooke (writer/artist), Phil Noto (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 26 (#1) / 22 (#2-3) (+2 pages of backup story)
Price: $3.99

The fourth issue is already available (see e.g. this review at Major Spoilers), but as always I have to wait for the next mail order shipment to get it, so this review covers only the first three issues.

I imagine writing Minutemen must have been both easier and harder than the other Before Watchmen books: easier because not as much is said about them in Watchmen, which gives the writer more freedom, and harder for the same reason, because all the bits of information on the Minutemen scattered throughout the original comic need to be put together and integrated into a coherent story.

The framing narrative is Hollis Mason writing his book “Under the Hood” shortly after his retirement as the first Nite Owl in 1962, reflecting on his Minutemen days, and re-telling their story once again. This time, his story goes into more detail than what we have read in the “Under the hood” excerpts in Watchmen, and his words (caption text) are accompanied by pictures. As a result, we’re getting a much more fleshed out account of the formation of the Minutemen.

However, it’s more complicated than that. While Mason’s words refer to the pictures they’re placed in, it becomes clear that the art doesn’t merely illustrate the captions. We’re seeing things (and reading things in word balloons) that Mason cannot have seen (and heard), because e.g. in the episode on Hooded Justice in issue #1, he was standing in front of a building, but we get to see what happens inside it.

In issue #2, this narrative mode stops after the first ten pages, and from then on the text is only in straight dialogue (apart from a quoted poem interwoven with the main narrative). Mason’s 1962 voice returns in issue #3 for three pages, and then it’s word balloon text again, this time with the ironic addition of inserted panels from a fictitious 1940s “Minutemen #1” comic book. This more straightforward storytelling approach lends itself better to the episodes Darwyn Cooke tells: the ones that are not covered in Watchmen, e.g. the first Minutemen mission, or the expulsion of the Comedian after he had raped Silk Spectre. Other episodes contain scenes that explicitly show the homosexuality of Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice and the Silhouette. Although Alan Moore/Hollis Mason strongly suggests this in Watchmen, showing it unambiguously takes away some of the mystery surrounding the Minutemen, so I’m not happy with Cooke’s choice to do so.

In general, though, I’m more comfortable with the storytelling approach in Minutemen than the one in Ozymandias. Add Cooke’s impressive reduced layouts and drawing style, and you end up with a solid comic book.

By the way, did anyone recognise what is depicted on the first panel of the second page in issue #1? All I can see is a manhole cover and rain, but what are the yellow and brown areas, and where exactly is that place supposed to be?

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


from Before Watchmen: Rorschach #2 by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo / DC Comics

Review of Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1-2 (of 4)

Language: English
Authors: Brian Azzarello (writer), Lee Bermejo (artist), Barbara Ciardo (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 24 (#1), 22 (#2) (+2 pages of backup story)
Price: $3.99

The outline of Rorschach is quite different: instead of fleshing out Rorschach’s origin story (which he himself tells in Watchmen), we’re following him on what could be an average day in his life as a masked vigilante, as he is going after a drug dealer ring. The story is set in 1977, 13 years after Walter Kovacs first donned the mask of Rorschach and 8 years before the beginning of Watchmen. Is this version of Rorschach any different from the one we’re familiar with from the original series? Maybe. I found both his caption text monologue (his journal) and his speech bubbles too verbose, his way with the Gunga Diner waitress too friendly. Either Brian Azzarello is going to put Rorschach through a change that will make him more like he is in 1985, or his Rorschach is just slightly different from Alan Moore’s.

Despite this possible inaccuracy in the writing and the so far unassuming nature of the story, this series is still a good read, mainly due to Lee Bermejo’s striking, timely (i.e. for the 21st century) artwork, and the brilliance that Barbara Ciardo’s colouring adds to it.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○