Tea & Comics: Dick Jokes

“Tea & Comics” is a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which my girlfriend Dani and I talk about the week’s new comics over a cup of tea. Starting this week, you can expect “Tea & Comics” to be posted every Sunday morning, as the ideal accompaniment to your Sunday brunch, or as some light after-church reading.

This week, we discuss Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Casey & April #3, Gotham By Midnight #8, Grayson #11, We Are Robin #3, Fight Club 2 #4, and Batgirl #43.

D: This week is a very Batman-heavy week, but we’re starting on a different note. This first book has more like a Young Adult feel to it.

A: Yeah, it’s kind of similar to some of the titles we talked about last week, though it is tangentially related to a bigger superhero book: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But this miniseries is pretty decidedly shying away from super-heroics. This is Casey & April, by Mariko Tamaki, who is decidedly not a superhero comics writer.

D: She’s best known for her graphic novels, Skim and This One Summer, which she did with her sister Jillian Tamaki.

A: Jillian isn’t doing the art on Casey & April – the art here is by Irene Koh, who brings a real manga influence on this.

D: Absolutely, and it has some of the themes that show up in a lot of manga: coming of age, questioning authority, independence. But it’s really restrained; unlike most manga, there’s none of the over-the-top action and over-exaggerated expressions.

A: This one, like Mariko’s other work, is very subdued and very quiet. It’s really not what you would expect from a book that has the TMNT brand on the cover.

D: Yeah, that’s true. Starting out, I almost expected it to be similar to Mystery Incorporated: Casey and April are driving across the country in a van, looking to find some ancient scroll or artifact, or something, out in the desert.

A: That’s something spinning out of the main TMNT title right now which, as mentioned last week, we are sorely behind on. But that being said, other than the fact that April and Casey have left New York for the California desert, and that I’m sure they’ve got a plot-relevant reason for it, you don’t need to know anything about what’s going on over in TMNT. This book starts out as a very subdued kind of examination of April and Casey’s relationship, which really might not be very functional. 

D: Well, it’s a relationship built under very specific circumstances; namely, all the weird shit they’ve gone through together. But now that things are more subdued, they have the space and the time to reflect on what, if anything, is keeping them together.

A: Some couples stay together for the kids; April and Casey, I think, are staying together for the turtles. They are the only two humans in their shared social group. Which might not be enough: in the first issue, April shares a heartwarming anecdote from her childhood, which inspires Casey to share an anecdote from his childhood, and almost all his childhood anecdotes allude to how his father was an alcoholic who abused him.  Even before these two characters got caught up in a wild world of mutants and ninjas, they were already from entirely different worlds.

Casey's childhood anecdotes: always a downer. (Art by Irene Koh, from TMNT: Casey & April #3)

Casey’s childhood anecdotes: always a downer. (Art by Irene Koh, from TMNT: Casey & April #3)

D: Now, this week’s issue is the third issue of this miniseries.

A: By this point, their road trip is derailed by the classic TMNT villain, the Rat King, for reasons that are entirely unclear, and remain unclear in this issue. But whatever the Rat King is up to, it takes a really trippy turn in this issue. The narration throughout this issue relates the story of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur and Daedalus, very specifically evoking a mythic sort of iconography, and I assume, because Tamaki is very much a literary sort of writer, that this is being employed as a metaphor. In this issue, however, that metaphor is not very clear yet. Given that Mariko Tamaki’s past works have been longer form graphic novels, I suspect this series will read really damn well in trade, but as of right now, it seems a very strange combination of an introspective character story about a deteriorating relationship, while also being a strange TMNT story.

This is a TMNT comic, right? (Art by Irene Koh, from TMNT: Casey & April #3)

This is a TMNT comic, right? (Art by Irene Koh, from TMNT: Casey & April #3)

D: I think it’s straddling a kind of uncomfortable line in regards to who the intended audience is. Is this meant for the TMNT enthusiast, is it for Mariko Tamaki’s more literary audience?  But we’re going to keep reading this one, and not just because we love the current Ninja Turtles cartoon.

A: Yeah, there’s a bit of a tease in this one that the Rat King is not working on his own, and he might not even be the one masterminding this, so I trust that this very strange story is going somewhere. The plot aside, though, I do really really like how the characters are written here, which is what’s keeping me reading. Both April and Casey come across as smart, but also very flawed: they are quick to jump on each other’s faults, they talk but don’t listen . . .

D: I think I dislike the writing for the same reason that you like it: you’re right, they’re flawed, and I’m fine with that, but I feel like they’re a little too flawed: they are very quick to jump to the wrong conclusions, they are quick to talk over one another, and they tend to point out each other’s flaws, but they push at each other, pressing those flaws like a bruise. Yeah, sure, that’s something couples do, functioning or not, but I just feel like we don’t get to see any tenderness. Mariko Tamaki seems to be so interested in the end of the relationship, that we don’t get to see what’s ending.

A: Mm, I don’t know: I think there are some sweet moments, and I think we start to see those moments more in this issue. Casey is very determined in this issue to find April, and when Casey is in trouble, April is so quick to jump to Casey’s rescue, even though it really just places her in danger along with him. So there is a very real dedication there.

This is what a sweet moment looks like in this comic. (Art by Irene Koh, from TMNT: Casey & April #3)

This is what a sweet moment looks like in this comic. (Art by Irene Koh, from TMNT: Casey & April #3)

D: And I do hope we get to see more of that in the upcoming issues.

A: I don’t think you send April and Casey off on their own miniseries, and especially you don’t have Mariko Tamaki write it, if you don’t intend to examine that relationship, and either strengthen that relationship or blow it up.

D: I’ve got no segue to take us from this book to the next, so: Gotham By Midnight. Full disclosure, I did not read the previous issues, but as I understand it, this book is about the paranormal crimes division of the Gotham City Police Department, which is led by Jim Corrigan.

A: This one is written by Ray Fawkes with art by Juan Ferreyra. Like any Batman title right now, this is post-Bruce Wayne, but thankfully Batman has never had very much bearing on this series, and he has pretty much no bearing on this issue. I think the most significant thing that we see as a result of that, is that Jim Corrigan’s Midnight Shift was kept off the books by Commissioner Gordon, but now Gordon is no longer the Commissioner of Police, because he is Batman.

D: So Corrigan and his squad are under review, because officially speaking, the Midnight Shift has never closed a case, or made any arrests, because their “perps” are usually not even human. On paper, it looks like they’re using a lot of resources without getting any trackable results.

A:  This issue is very indicative of the rest of the series: it is very much structured as a police procedural, in the CSI vein.

D: CSI meets Constantine, basically.

A: Exactly. It’s a crime-of-the-week, or rather, of-the-month, comic.

D: This issue is about a television broadcast which induces violent behavior in anyone who watches it.

A: There are, of course, plots which run from one issue to the next, like the IA investigation, and an allusion to an evil seed growing in the heart of Gotham, which manifests in these black flowers. And of course, there is the Spectre, who is a vengeful spirit that resides inside Jim Corrigan.

D: Who is a character I’m familiar with! From Constantine, the TV series, may it rest in peace.

Those lines sound better with a Louisiana drawl. (Art by Juan Ferreyra, from Gotham By Midnight #8)

Those lines sound better with a Louisiana drawl. (Art by Juan Ferreyra, from Gotham By Midnight #8)

A: Constantine wasn’t a perfect show, but even though this is non-canonical, I now read Corrigan with a Louisiana accent.

D: Me too! Other than filling the Constantine-shaped hole in my life, what I like best about this comic is how the artist portrays the grotesque.

A: Yeah. It’s a horror book, but taking more inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft than, say, John Carpenter. This a world where demons exist, but they come from within, and it usually manifests itself in very ugly and grotesque ways. The art in this book has been stellar from the beginning. This is the third issue of the second arc, which is drawn by Juan Ferreyra. The first arc was very different; it was drawn by Ben Templesmith, whose art has a much more tenuous hold on reality. Very sketchy, very exaggerated, almost cartoony at times.

Don't say we didn't warn you . . . (Art by Juan Ferreyra, from Gotham By Midnight #8)

Don’t say we didn’t warn you . . . (Art by Juan Ferreyra, from Gotham By Midnight #8)

D: But I feel Juan Ferreyra’s art, because it is more realistic, really makes the supernatural and grotesque elements a lot more stark.

A: It’s true, and his art is really growing on me. I’ll admit I was really lukewarm to his art at first because it was just such a shift from Templesmith’s, but I am really warming up to Juan Ferreyra. The art is pretty great in this issue.

D: Still no segue, but now we’re moving onto the title which I think we are both most excited about.

A: The reason we didn’t start with this book is because I probably would have just spent to entire time talking about this book, and we wouldn’t have talked about any other comics this week.

D: Which is not what you signed up for, dear readers.

A: It’s true. This is not Tea & Grayson.

D: Tea & Dick.

A: Yes, there will be lots of “Dick” jokes.

D: Yay! Dick Grayson, of course, used to be Robin.

A: He was the first Robin. Chances are when you think of Robin, you are thinking of Dick Grayson.

D: He’s the orphaned circus acrobat, who then evolved into Nightwing.

A: Evolved? Like a Pokemon?

Congratulations! Your NIGHTWING evolved into AGENT 37! (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #11)

Congratulations! Your NIGHTWING evolved into AGENT 37! (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #11)

D: Sure! Now, he has left the world of super-heroics to become an agent.

A: A secret agent, not, like, a talent agent. Even though that would probably be great, too. Honestly, I think that I would read any comic about Dick Grayson doing anything. I would read a comic about him doing his laundry. He is such a charismatic character, he’s a lot of fun, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I really, really like the way that Tom King and Tim Seeley, who write the series, handle his humour. Because Dick Grayson is always depicted as a lighthearted character, which a lot of times seemed at odds with Batman and that dark, gritty, grounded world he inhabits. Even a lot of Batman fans will assert that this kind of Robin just doesn’t fit with Batman. It doesn’t make sense to have this wise-cracking kid –

D: “Holy Dick Jokes, Batman!” That kind of thing.

A: Those particular qualities of Grayson are played really well in this issue. When he doesn’t have any other mask – when he’s not Robin, or Nightwing, or Agent 37 – that humor is his mask. It’s what he puts up between himself and everyone else.

D: The theme of masks, and really, identity, is played with a lot in this issue.

Even Grayson's sexual identity is questioned. (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #9)

Even Grayson’s sexual identity is questioned. (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #9)

A: Grayson’s a great character to examine that issue, because he is a character with a great deal of longevity, but unlike most long lived characters, he is always shifting and always changing. Maybe a lot of that comes down to a lack of vision or a lack of coherent creative voice, but Tom King and Tim Seeley do a good job of making that fluidity a part of his personality.

D: Certainly, that’s a pretty good quality for a secret agent, but in this story, it means he falls under suspicion for a series of assassinations of spies from other agencies. Someone has co-opted his identity.

A: This issue is the third and final issue in a really fun arc called “Nemesis.” Even though we’re supposed to just be talking about the most recent issue, both of us read all three issues in one sitting yesterday and it’s brilliant, so we’ll probably be talking a bit about all three issues. The art is by Mikel Janin, who is brilliant, and is the perfect artist for Grayson – he uses some absolutely incredible double page spreads.

D: His art really taps into Grayson’s background as an acrobat; he doesn’t let the layouts confine the characters, letting the movements flow from panel to panel. It’s like choreography.

Choreography. (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #9)

Choreography. (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #9)

A: It’s certainly one of the best looking comics I’ve read in awhile, but the story doesn’t disappoint, either. It’s less of a superhero book, and much more of a spy thriller, but is a lot of fun. It’s smart, it’s self aware – it’s probably one of my new favorite mainstream comics right now. Which really shouldn’t come as a surprise because I really like Robin, particularly Dick Grayson. Robin: Year One, by Chuck Dixon and Marcos Martin, is an absolute favorite of mine, and this series feels like a natural continuation of that version of the character and handles it really well. But I’ve always really liked Robin in any iteration, no matter who was behind the mask. One thing that I’ve noticed, and I was thinking about this last week in regards to Jimmy Olsen, is that I am usually more engaged by the characters that aren’t necessarily iconic superheroes themselves, but are just people inspired by those superheroes. There’s no power, no responsibility. They’ve just been given an example of what heroism is, so they just do their best to live up to that. There’s such a purity of intent – they’re not powerful people. I mean, Dick Grayson isn’t the millionaire. Jimmy Olsen isn’t bulletproof.

D: They’re the everyman.

A: Yeah, and I think that’s why I’m excited about a lot of the titles this week, because even though this is a very Batman-heavy week, Batman isn’t front-and-centre in any of them, so we get a lot of those everyman sort of characters. We Are Robin is a great example of that: It is such a great premise, spinning off of the disappearance/death of Batman. It feels like a very natural way to take the idea of fighting crime in Gotham and what it means to be inspired by Batman.

D: The whole premise is that a group of kids have adopted the colours and symbol of Robin, and are operating as something of an underground vigilante movement to fill the void left by Batman. They are being directed by an unseen person, referred to only as The Nest, which most of the kids assume is Batman himself. Now, we do learn in this issue who The Nest is, and it’s awesome. But we’ll keep this spoiler-free.

A: There’s a couple really big moments, and one very big reveal in this issue. The art, which is by Jorge Corona, Khary Randolph and Rob Haynes is very energetic. It’s a very good match to the story – it feels very youthful, and I hate to use this word because it sounds stupid, but it’s very urban, if that makes sense.  

D: It does remind me of a Gorillaz album cover or music video.

They do kind of look like a Robin-themed hip-hop group . . . (Art by Jorge Corona, from We Are Robin #3)

They do kind of look like a Robin-themed hip-hop group . . . (Art by Jorge Corona, from We Are Robin #3)

A: There’s so much good about this comic, and now that we’re three issues in, I just wish it was a little bit more: it hasn’t really given us an engaging conflict. I mean, there’s this underground homeless army-cult, which seems very familiar to me – I’m pretty sure Batman: The Animated Series did something similar.

D: And this particular issue just continues to dangle that intriguing premise in front of us, and I don’t want to say doesn’t make good on it, but I think it kind of assumes that the premise is enough.

A: This is a very action heavy issue. It’s very tensely written, focusing primarily on disarming a bomb. There is also that homeless army we mentioned earlier, which is not particularly engaging, and leads to the obligatory face off with the new Batman. Which, I am frankly getting tired of, because this has happened in Catwoman and Batgirl. I think it also has the unfortunate effect of making Jim Gordon’s Batman seem like a bit of a dick, because in all of his appearances in any book except his own, he just kind of shows up, picks a fight with Catwoman/Batgirl/the Robins, threatens them with arrest but fails to actually arrest them. Yes, I understand that they really want to stress the point that this new Batman is operating within the law, but . . . well, it just kind of stops the story dead.

Then why do you keep doing the same thing, Bat-Jim? (Art by Jorge Corona, from We Are Robin #3)

Then why do you keep doing the same thing, Bat-Jim? (Art by Jorge Corona, from We Are Robin #3)

D: Carrying on with themes of authority and violence, let’s talk about Fight Club 2.

A: Which of course is breaking the first rule.

D: Full disclaimer, I have never seen the Edward Norton and Brad Pitt Fight Club movie, nor have I read the book by Chuck Palahniuk.

A: Who actually appears as a character in this particular issue. And this particular issue is pretty damn weird. I like it though. The art is what brought me here: it’s drawn by Cameron Stewart, who is just the greatest.

D: I almost don’t want to talk about this book, because I feel the less you know about it, the better, and most of it sounds really strange when you try to summarize it. I mean, Marla is cheating on Sebastian with Tyler, which isn’t really cheating, because Tyler is a repressed part of Sebastian’s personality

A: That twist at the end of Fight Club is just taken for granted here. Sebastian knows that Tyler is a part of him, but he just can’t control him. Tyler’s endgame is the same this time around as the first time – he wants to burn the world down and start a new world order. He is a brilliant but cynical asshole. And we see a lot of that in this issue. But we also see a lot of self awareness – in this issue, we get a whole sequence which sends up the cultural impact of Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk himself shows up in the Write Club, which is a writing group, and he’s reading from a work-in-progress which happens to be the same story we’re reading. Not altogether unlike Tyler Durden, Chuck Palahniuk is a little cynical and might be too smart for his own good.

Art by Cameron Stewart, from Fight Club 2 #4.

Art by Cameron Stewart, from Fight Club 2 #4.

D: It reads a little like a Matt Fraction comic.

A: It does, and Matt Fraction actually gets an acknowledgement on the front page of each issue, and I know Matt Fraction is involved somehow. There’s a definite influence – I think Matt coached Chuck on how to write for the comics medium.

D: I’d say: just read it. It’s something worth reading.

A: At the very least, it is really talented people making a comic really well. 

D: And one of those really talented people is also behind the last comic we are discussing today.

A: This is Batgirl, which is also by Cameron Stewart, but this time he’s not the artist. He’s the co-writer here along with Brendan Fletcher whom we have already sang the praises of with Black Canary and Gotham Academy. And the art –

D: Is so pretty.

So pretty. (Art by Babs Tarr, from Batgirl #43)

So pretty. (Art by Babs Tarr, from Batgirl #43)

A: It’s by the wonderful Babs Tarr. She’s a self-described Sailor Moon super-fan, and it kind of shows. This is the third issue in this arc. Kind of. The previous two issues told their own story, with Livewire, which was great. I love Livewire: she was a character originally from Superman: The Animated Series, and she’s a good fit for Batgirl – this comic would make a great cartoon.

D: Batgirl: The Animated Series would be amazing. Get on that, Warner Bros.

A: This feels more like it exists in the same world as Superman: The Animated Series than it does the main Batman title and the larger DC Universe. This issue brings us back to a tighter focused story on Barbara Gordon, her friends, and her neighborhood, which is a trendy suburb of Gotham, Burnside.

D: As the Danforth is to Toronto, Burnside is to Gotham.

A: Yeah, basically. Except with more tech startups.

D: Which is a super important detail here. In this issue, Barbara Gordon is acting as maid-of-honor for one of her friends and helping plan that wedding. But as Batgirl, she’s investigating a string of tiger-related deaths, with the attacks taking place at tech companies.

A: Which is unusual in Burnside. There aren’t a lot of tigers there.

D: It’s a great hook, and it gets tied into the story in a really interesting way.

A: True! This is a great interpretation of Barbara Gordon, because what Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher did when they started their run on this, is they’ve made this a very modern book: the cases which Batgirl investigates are focused very much on tech and media and information. For years in the comics, when Barbara was paralyzed, she operated as Oracle, who was the tech genius behind the scenes of Batman’s operations. Even though her career as Oracle has largely been erased in current continuity, it’s nice to see it being alluded to.

D: Which also just keeps it modern and relevant to the age demographic of both it’s characters and probably most of it’s readers.

A: Yeah, it feels very realistic and very relatable. And its just a lot of fun – she’s a great character and it’s great to see her in a series that lets her have some agency. For so long she was defined by the tragedy of having been paralyzed by the Joker, and even though, yeah, sure, The Killing Joke is a big monumental story, it’s nice to see it being sort of relegated to more of a footnote in Barbara Gordon’s story.

D: Now her best friend and roommate, Frankie, is acting kind of as Batgirl’s own Oracle.

A: And there’s even a tease that Frankie will be getting her own codename, which may or may not be Oracle.

D: I love this comic, and this issue is great: it’s an intriguing set up with these tiger attacks at tech start ups in Burnside. And it keeps the fun tone, which is no small feat when your instigating event has someone dismembered by a tiger. But Cameron Stewart does restrain himself from the violence with this one.

It's not too much to ask for Batgirl: The Animated Series, is it? (Art by Babs Tarr, from Batgirl #43).

It’s not too much to ask for Batgirl: The Animated Series, is it? (Art by Babs Tarr, from Batgirl #43).

A: Yeah, and this is tonally really different from anything Cameron Stewart has previously done. As I said, it has that sort of cartoon tone to it. What I really like about it, is that this to me feels very much like the Batgirl I know and love from Batgirl: Year One, similar to how Grayson harkens back to that character’s origins as well. The continuity is all there if that’s what you’re into, but it remains accessible: you don’t have to worry about years and years of continuity to understand what’s going on.

D: It’s amazing.

A: We went through this entire thing without mentioning tea. Again.

D: Oh right! But this time, I am actually drinking tea. I’m drinking Jumpy Monkey, which is from DAVIDsTEA.

A: There would definitely be a DAVIDsTEA in Burnside.

D: And Barbara, caffeine junkie that she is, would probably be all about Jumpy Monkey – it’s a yerba mate with coffee beans, and almonds, and chicory root and white chocolate.

A: It was the first tea I ever got from DAVIDsTEA; I think it was maybe our first Tea & Comics date.

D: Aww!

A: Still one of my favourites.