Tea & Comics: Pop Goes The Comics

“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. 

This week, we discuss Gotham Academy #10, Batman #44, Catwoman #44, Starve #4, and Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #2.

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A: This is kind of an interesting Tea & Comics: These are new issues of the same titles we featured in our first one. Which means we have been doing this for a month. 

D: And we both drank tea today. It only took us a month to get the “tea” part right.

A: Well, almost right. I’m not currently drinking tea, but yes, I did drink tea today. We’re getting there. Now, same as a month ago we are discussing Gotham Academy, Batman, Catwoman, Starve and Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl.

D: In that order.

A: Without further ado: Gotham Academy. It’s the same team as usual: Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher writing, Karl Kerschl on art, though he gets an assist from Msassyk on this issue, who is also doing colours on this issue with Serge LaPointe. This is another wonderful issue in a wonderful series, and I don’t have a whole lot to add beyond that, to be honest. It’s pretty much a done-in-one issue, though we do get to see the plot of Olive and her mother continue to move forward as well. We have leveled the criticism toward a few titles that their stories seem designed to read in trade and that reading them issue-by-issue isn’t ideal, but Gotham Academy is serialized storytelling done right; it’s perfectly structured for single issues.

D: Those same episodic qualities give the story in each issue more room to delve a little deeper into the secondary characters and what’s going on behind-the-scenes. The main storyline, which is definitely the Olive-Calamity plot, is there, but this issue is much more about Katherine.

Katherine is maybe not an entirely normal, well-adjusted student at Gotham Academy. (Art by Karl Kerschl and Msassyk, from Gotham Academy #10)

Katherine is maybe not an entirely normal, well-adjusted student at Gotham Academy. (Art by Karl Kerschl and Msassyk, from Gotham Academy #10)

A: Who we’ve only met momentarily in an earlier issue, as Maps’ creepy roommate.

D: Here we learn about her connection to a different character in the Batman universe, which is turning into a running theme. Which has me questioning the priorities and motivations of those in charge of the school- we already know that Olive received a Wayne Scholarship because she was of specific interest to Bruce Wayne, and now with Katherine, I’m wondering if this is a school for the children of super-villains? And whether these children are being gathered with good intentions or bad.

A: There’s the fact, too, that Professor Hugo Strange and Professor Kirk Langstrom, who are actually both Batman villains, are faculty at the school. This issue continues to deepen the already mysterious air that Gotham Academy has. As you begin to consider that whether or not it’s of benevolent intention, that something sinister is afoot.

"Strange" advice. (Art by Karl Kerschl and Msassyk, from Gotham Academy #10)

“Strange” advice. (Art by Karl Kerschl and Msassyk, from Gotham Academy #10)

D: It seems right now that there are a lot of stories about the children of villains, like that Disney channel show The Descendants. Which is probably not the best example, but I do think it’s a premise that’s rich with potential to explore nature-versus-nurture: whether these kids are destined for evil, or if they have the agency to choose to be good.

A: Katherine, whose last name I won’t even say in case that gives it away to any readers familiar with the Gotham universe, is an interesting addition to that conversation. While she is the child of a super-villain, due to this super-villains power-set, she is kind of also a part of that super-villain, so no, she doesn’t necessarily have full agency. How much agency Olive has as well is something I’ve begun to wonder; though her mother, Calamity, is presumably deceased at this point, Olive can hear her mother talking to her and telling her to do bad things. Maybe it’s not Calamity risen from the grave who is starting these fires, it could be Olive herself, involuntarily.

D: We can assume that Bruce Wayne placed her in this school for a reason, and it was probably with the best of intentions, but Bruce Wayne’s good intentions don’t always play out as planned . . .

A: Which brings us to Batman #44. This issue is a little bit different: it’s still Scott Snyder writing, though this time he’s got a partner in Brian Azzarello. On the art side, Greg Capullo has taken the month off. Now, we discussed last week in regards to The Omega Men, sometimes when a new artist steps in to do a single issue on a comic, it can feel very obviously like filler, and the writer lets the story just spin its wheels. Batman #44, on the other hand, is how you do a fill-in issue really, really well. Scott Snyder has important things to say in this issue, and he doesn’t pull any punches when saying them. The story he’s telling here is relevant to what the story is telling in the regular plot-line right now, but it stands on it’s own very effectively. This is a great single issue. The art here is by Jock, who was Scott Snyder’s first Batman collaborator back when he was on Detective Comics, and that Black Mirror arc remains one of my favorite Batman stories of all time. It’s great to see that creative team again, and it’s also great to see Bruce Wayne as Batman again. I didn’t realize how much I missed Bruce behind the mask until this issue. Admittedly it has been fun to have Bat-Jim-Gord-Man, but he’s not Batman. I feel he himself would actually agree with that statement. And while Batman actually fails to save the day in this issue, this is nevertheless a great Bruce-Wayne-as-Batman story.

D: Yeah, this story could not be as compelling if it were Bat-Jim-Gord-Man, because his actions can’t have the same sort of ripple-effect or impact as the actions of billionaire Bruce Wayne.

A: Which is important, as this issue shows the consequences of either Batman or Bruce Wayne’s actions. This issue is set shortly after the events of Zero Year in which the Riddler crippled Gotham City. At the end of that story, of course Batman saves the city and defeats the Riddler. Which is the first ripple we see in this issue, how the defeat of the Riddler has left a vacuum.

D: This is what happens when a major power is suddenly overthrown; other players rush in to try and fill that void.

A: Now, with the Riddler gone, Batman is seeing the emergence of new super-villains. Several are mentioned, but the one most relevant in this issue is the Penguin. His very rise to power, however, has been precipitated by the events of Zero Year. Because a good portion of the city was decimated, there is now a great deal of poverty and struggle within Gotham’s poorer neighbourhoods. Without an official infrastructure to support them, gangs step in to take control of these neighbourhoods.

D: This is not far-fetched: this issue does a great job showing the impact of poverty, in contrast to the propensity of wealth, after a disaster.

A: Because this issue isn’t really about super-villains, it’s not about a recovery effort: it’s about an everyday person who is looking out for his family, and how those are the details that get lost when heroes like Batman and philanthropists like Bruce Wayne are focused more upon correcting the big, visible problems. That is fascinating in this issue: Bruce Wayne is definitely well-intentioned and benevolent in the actions which he takes toward urban renewal, but his charitable efforts are based more on what he, as a billionaire with every opportunity in life, assumes Gotham needs, instead of asking and listening to what would make the most positive difference.

Good intentions. (From Batman #44).

Good intentions. (From Batman #44).

D: Superhero stories don’t usually make the distinction between an ally and a savior, and Bruce Wayne doesn’t even seem to understand that there is a distinction. He expects to rush in and save the day, and he expects that to be enough. Bruce Wayne thinks that he can save a neighbourhood by constructing a housing development for mid-to-low income families, which only negatively impact the people already living in these neighborhoods as the development drives up property values, leads to gentrification . . .

A: Which puts a young man in a position that he feels he must do something desperate. Trying to keep his family safe, he seeks out the Penguin. I think it’s very telling to see that when he needs help, the person which he has to turn to is the Penguin, a crime boss, because Bruce Wayne is inaccessible to him.

D: It begs the question, for sure, who in our society is easier to access: is it the people who have the most opportunity to do good, or is it the people who have the most opportunity to do bad? This issue offers a surprisingly realistic take on the urban problem, bringing in a lot of very current issues about violence and race relations in cities.

A: That’s one thing we hadn’t mentioned yet, is that the young man in this story is black.  It’s easy to read this as the #BlackLivesMatter issue of Batman.

#BlackLivesMatter. (Art by Jock, from Batman #44)

#BlackLivesMatter. (Art by Jock, from Batman #44)

D: It is heavy handed, but you’ve got to really applaud Scott Snyder and Jock.

A: I don’t think it’s a topic that begs for subtlety.

D: It’s better to go all in and make it very, very clear what you’re trying to say, instead of tiptoeing around it.

A: We see this young black man, turning to the Penguin for help, only to have the Penguin turn around offer everything he was suppose to protect to a rival gang, leaving this young man with nothing. In one last bid to make something more of himself, this young man seeks out a mysterious man in a garden . . .

D: Which is Mr. Bloom. He is the drug dealer that all of those after school specials warned you about.

A: Except scarier. I think it’s really quite effective because we see this ordinary, desperate kid trying so much to do whats best for his family, and no one is helping him, no one can do that. We see him in an extraordinary city, a city with superheroes and we see him literally try to make himself more. What is really beautiful and sad and poetic – and also a little horrific in the way that Jock draws it – is that when he does take the seed that Mr. Bloom gives him, he turns into a bat. But he only takes the seed in a last ditch bid to save himself after he’s shot by a police officer for no reason. Again, it’s not real subtle, but it’s hard to get more topical than that.

D: What we see here are the limitations of being Batman, and the limitations of being Bruce Wayne, that there are people that neither of them can save, and how the shortcomings of one actually makes the job of the other harder.

A: This might be a downer of an issue, but Scott Snyder is sure to end it by showing Batman trying to do better. There was a scene fairly early on in the issue where Batman shows up at a crime scene in a poor neighbourhood, and there are some kids that run away – Batman actually scares them off, and he’s pleased that they run from him.

Batman, as drawn by Jock, is something to fear. (From Batman #44)

Batman, as drawn by Jock, is something to fear. (From Batman #44)

D: He feels like he is doing them a favour: this is hard love, he’s scaring them straight, scaring them home.

A: And Batman is a unique hero in that way because he is designed to inspire fear. He’s not Superman, he’s not a symbol of hope to aspire to. He’s something to be afraid of. Yet at the end of this issue we see this scene playing out again, but instead Batman stops the kids and asks them to talk to him. Again, this can easily read as heavy handed, but it’s dealing with subject matter that does not call for subtlety. With as topical and raw as these issues are, I don’t think subtlety would serve it especially well.  

D: This really overturns a lot of assumptions, both the character’s own assumptions, but I think a lot of assumptions of superhero stories in general.

A: Absolutely. It’s one thing to say that Gotham is a bad city, that it’s a city that needs saving. It’s easy to view Gotham itself as the villain, as I’ve observed before, and I think Batman himself takes that view: that this crooked town is what he is fighting against, but not all the people in this crooked town, even if they are forced to associate with crooked people, that doesn’t make them crooks. It’s an issue that, and this is going to sound racially charged given the topic of this issue, is not black and white. And I don’t mean it racially charged, although I suppose it works both ways.

D: This is a really incredible issue. You can engage with it critically – I think it will push the readers a little, and challenge people who enjoy superhero comics.

A: It is a work of art, and speaking of: we really need to give a huge round of applause to Jock for this one. It’s such a change from Greg Capullo’s art, and while I like Greg for a lot of reasons, I like Jock for a completely different set of things. This issue is atmospheric, at times very harsh to look at, even ugly, with absolutely elegant layouts.

Art by Jock, from Batman #44.

Art by Jock, from Batman #44.

D: Then we have Catwoman, which is . . .

A: Oh, it certainly is. If you recall from last month’s discussion, this title is a little disappointing lately, especially after an absolutely amazing first arc. This second arc has been derailed by Catwoman’s preoccupation with finding Batman, and disjointed by a parade of cameos that don’t serve the plot. In many ways, this issue reads a bit smoother than the past three because we don’t have any of those awkward cameos, and Selina actually owns up to the irresponsibility of her recent actions. Which makes me wonder if the last three issues played Selina that way intentionally, when I’d been reading it as inconsistent and forced characterization, but even if it was intentional, Selina doesn’t come out looking very well, or very intelligent, which is still at odds with her characterization in the first arc.

D: It’s not a bad issue. When it’s good, it’s great, but when it’s not good, it has a hard time recovering. Sometimes that might be the writing, other times it’s the art.

A: David Messina’s art is very inconsistent. Some pages, some panels, some moments are beautifully done, but then others are almost confusingly sloppy.

D: Sometimes I think he’s just trying something to see if it works out. I have to give him this, he never plays it safe. He chooses some challenging poses and angles, and just doesn’t always nail it.

A: He definitely isn’t a mediocre artist – he doesn’t just phone it in with the same sort of art you see again and again. It’s distinct, but it is inconsistent. And that is jarring.

D: Well, it’s disappointing. Because he’s an artist who doesn’t overly sexualize his female protagonist; he draws panels that other artists would unashamedly turn into a T-and-A shot without once putting his characters into those poses. For that reason, I really, really want to like his art on Catwoman.

A: And we’ve been critical of David Messina’s art for a lot of reasons, but one reason to praise him is for his lack of sexualizing Catwoman. But I think for me the story in this issue continues to be the let down, rather than the art. There are a lot of really uninteresting story beats, or otherwise some very strange ones. Like Killer Croc’s role in this issue: he’s actually a strangely kind and almost sagely Killer Croc.

D: He is very wise.

Killer Croc, telling it like it is. (Art by David Messina, from Catwoman #44.)

Killer Croc, telling it like it is. (Art by David Messina, from Catwoman #44.)

A: He lays down some serious wisdom for Selina Kyle, which makes her reconsider her entire life. It’s a very, very strange turn for this story to take, because, despite a mention in the narration, there has been no prior establishment of a relationship between Killer Croc and Selina. It’s a strange moment. While it’s satisfying to see Selina’s irresponsible behaviour get called out, it’s weird to see it be called out by Killer Croc.

D: He’s the Yoda of the Gotham sewers, it would seem.

A:  I’ve held on to this title because the first arc was just so good. I’m loathe to let it go, because, as you said, when it’s good it’s really good – but the story just isn’t that engaging or interesting going forward. Even with the ending of this issue, which was really well handled – this book has fumbled the pay-off so many times at this point, I just don’t have faith in this book to provide the interesting plot that I want it to have.

D: So, we’re taking it off the pull-list. Maybe we’ll get the trade once this arc is over, and hopefully we’ll say that we were horribly wrong to drop the title.

A: I would love to be proven wrong on this. But there are just too many more interesting comics coming out, especially next month when Marvel launches a lot of their new titles . . . I am just not rich enough to buy all of the comics, so some things have to go. And speaking of: next we’re talking about Starve. You might recall last time we talked about Starve, we were really happy because it was finally making good on it’s premise: issue #3 was well-paced, it had a good plot that developed the characters really nicely, moved that forward, while finally putting focus upon the food which is such an essential part of the story. Now, issue #4 takes the dish which the first three issues plated so beautifully for us and drops it on the floor. This is not a subtle issue, and not in the inspired way that this month’s Batman was not subtle.

D:  This issue dumbs down the whole premise to the level of the reality TV show which it’s supposed to be criticizing.

A: I read this issue before you did, and when you asked me what the culinary challenge was in this issue, I didn’t tell you, because as ridiculous to see it played out in the issue, it sounds even more ridiculous just to describe it.

"Are you not entertained?" (Art by Daniel Zezelj, from Starve #4.)

“Are you not entertained?” Um, no. (Art by Daniel Zezelj, from Starve #4.)

D: But I’m going to try: rather than completing a culinary challenge in the Starve studio kitchens, they’re doing something called a Kitchen Battle. The competitors form teams of three and must use the ingredients and tools available to them in the kitchen of whichever restaurant is assigned to them, to prepare a specific course in an allotted amount of time.

A: So far so good. Now for the stupid part.

D: The staff of these kitchens which they’re supposed to be working in will actively try to prevent the Starve competitors from using their kitchen, using violence.

A: That’s right, folks! We’re talking dumb-as-hell kitchen fight clubs.

D: Brian Wood really tries to rationalize it and justify it, and don’t get me wrong, I really, really like flawed characters, especially if they’re reconnecting with their estranged children through food. But Gavin’s narration in this issue just waxes poetic trying to force parallels between how the glamorized aggression of kitchen personalities is no better than actually beating each other up.

The first rule of kitchen fight club: Don't talk about kitchen fight club, because it's not a very interesting idea worth talking about. (Art by Daniel Zezelj, from Starve #4)

The first rule of kitchen fight club: Don’t talk about kitchen fight club, because it’s not a very interesting idea worth talking about. (Art by Daniel Zezelj, from Starve #4)

A: He makes a barely-veiled Gordon Ramsay reference – which makes no sense, as this is set in the future –

D: Maybe just the archetype.

A: He’s talking about a celebrity chef that yells at his staff, in some backward effort to convince us that it’s actually more constructive to just have a brawl and then move on. He seems nostalgic about this: he alludes to this being the way it was done when he was an up and comer, but . . . No. Brian Wood, I’m sorry, but no. This might be far in the future, and sure, the world is strapped for resources and the economy has collapsed and the entire world is basically privatized and the economy has collapsed, but nothing about that premise makes the idea of the kitchen staff’s of different restaurants physically fighting each other make any sense. It’s just a really damn stupid idea. And it’s just frustrating because it once again takes the focus off food, after just getting it there. It seems to be doing this just to provide some action, maybe, but if that’s the case, I feel Brian Wood is probably mistaken about this book requiring action. Because this is not a superhero or action book – this is what should be a not-terribly-far-fetched, food-focused science fiction story.

D: Looking at the future of food as a commodity is intriguing, but not because it lends itself to some violent and brutal and action packed science-fiction dystopia. No! That’s not why food is worth talking about: there are real inequalities and disparities, you don’t need an action scene to make it shocking or interesting.

A: Last week, I criticized We Stand on Guard for doing little to make itself different from any other big dumb science fiction, for placing too much emphasis on big dumb action. But in We Stand on Guard, it’s forgivable because, effective or not, it’s a premise that is being played as satire. Starve has not established itself as satire, so it doesn’t get to be big and dumb. I’m sorry. This is just uninspired.

If this is cooking, I think I'll order in. (Art by Daniel Zezelj, from Starve #4)

If this is cooking, I think I’ll order in. (Art by Daniel Zezelj, from Starve #4)

D: It’s an issue that plays like being hit on the head with a frying pan.

A: It seems we’ve flipped our stance from last month’s discussion on these last two titles: if you recall, we were a little unenthusiastic about Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl, and were really impressed with Starve. But this time we are decidedly unenthusiastic about Starve, but, speaking for myself at least, I found Phonogram to be absolutely delightful this month.

D: I would like to point out how that we started with a mainstream superhero book, Gotham Academy, which was full of Shakespeare references and Macbeth, and now we’re reading an independent, arty comic which is full of references to Madonna. This is a pretty amazing leap.

A: I feel like the first issue (and this is an assumption on my part, because I still haven’t read the first two Phonogram series) was quite possibly designed to link it to the world that Kieron Gillen and Jamie Mckelvie created in those first two series. In this issue, it’s own story really gets underway, and it’s satisfying in it’s own right. We have two narratives, both about the Immaterial Girl herself, but each one about a different half of her personality. One half is trapped in an A-ha music video.

D: The A-Ha music video. They might have others, but this is the music video you’re thinking of.

A: The homage is brilliantly done, and Jamie Mckelvie’s art continues to be absolutely wonderful in this issue.

It's no better to be safe than sorry . . . (Art by Jamie Mckelvie, from Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #2)

It’s no better to be safe than sorry . . . (Art by Jamie Mckelvie, from Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #2)

D: He very convincingly captures the style of the original video, while still maintaining his own distinct style. The art is just tremendous.

A: In the second story, we see what the second half of her personality is doing, now that she’s on this side of the TV screen. In the first issue, we commented that so many of the characters were insufferable hipsters, who were a little too clever for their own good. There’s a fair amount of Kieron Gillen in this book, so I’m pretty sure that depiction packs in a bit of self-deprecation: he’s maybe a bit too clever for his own good too, but at least he is aware of it. And he is definitely aware of it, because he’s written this character, Emily, the Immaterial Girl, who calls all these hipsters on their bullshit.

Papa don't preach, but she does. (Art by Jamie Mckelvie, from Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #2)

Papa don’t preach, but she does. (Art by Jamie Mckelvie, from Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #2)

D: That phrase, “Some people just want to watch the world burn”? It applies.

A: She is delighting in the chaos, because she has been watching from the other side of the screen this whole time, and these people have been driving her crazy. As she starts to steer this book, it becomes delightfully, wonderfully not hipster-y, and becomes a great salute to pop music. It is unabashed in its love for the pop music that everyone knows.

D: There are Michael Jackson references, Madonna references . . . I am just waiting for a Phil Collins reference to be dropped, which I will very much enjoy.

A: One reference which just gave me warm fuzzies from the start was this issue’s title: “Girl Anachronism,” which is a Dresden Dolls song. The Dresden Dolls were pretty much the musical accompaniment for my adolescence.

D: It’s a great issue. 

A: This is the series that I wanted it to be, and I am so glad it got there – and that it only took one issue to get there! The other thing I want to mention as well, which I think we forgot to mention regarding last issue, is that, like a record, each issue of Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl has an A-side, which is the main story, but also a B-Side, which is a short back-up story. The first issue had two B-sides, while this one has only one, which is drawn by Jamaica Dyer. It is entirely wordless, and is astounding.

It's all about the B-sides. (Art by Jamaica Dyer, from Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #2)

It’s all about the B-sides. (Art by Jamaica Dyer, from Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #2)

D: The B-sides are great – they’re short pieces that get to play with the concept of Phonogram, but because they’re so short, they really cut to the heart of the story.

A: I ought to mention: if you like Kieron Gillen and Jamie Mckelvie, they also released issue #14 of The Wicked + The Divine this week, which, by all rights, we should be talking about, but I’m behind. They went on hiatus after issue #12, and I haven’t got caught up yet. I can’t wait to talk about that series, though, because it’s just incredible.

D: But, that’s all we’ve got this week.

A: Next week, I promise I will drink my tea while we’re talking, rather than before. It was good tea.