Tea & Comics: Twice the Comics, Three Times the Batgirl

“Tea & Comics” is (usually) 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 two week’s worth of comics: Invader Zim #3, Rat Queens #12, Bizarro #4, Southern Cross #5, Black Canary #4, Fight Club 2 #5, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Casey & April #4, Batgirl #44, Grayson #12, We Are Robin #4, and 1872 #3.

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A: Welcome to our first ever double-sized instalment of Tea & Comics. Today, we discuss two weeks worth of comics.

D: While not drinking tea.

A: Nope. Sorry. We’ll get there. Now, we have a lot to cover, so without further ado, let’s get started. First up: Invader Zim. This is issue three and it was absolutely delightful.

D: This is the best issue of Invader Zim yet. For the first time, the comic really goes beyond what the cartoon could do thematically, and really brings a new dimension to it.

A: I remember in advance of the series coming out, reading an interview with Jhonen Vasquez about the series, in which he mentioned that, because the comic  isn’t owned or licensed by Nickelodeon, he has a lot of freedom to do things in his comic that he wouldn’t be allowed in the cartoon. I think we start to see that here; not that it’s a racy story, or for mature audiences at all. It’s still very much in the same vein as the cartoon, but it veers toward the more satirical.

D: I think it knows it’s audience, who are probably mostly people who watched the cartoon, who are a little older now, even though the characters remain the same age as in the cartoon. This issue pokes fun at hipsters, and the pretentiousness of high art appreciation, and it’s so much fun to read.

Art by Aaron Alexovich, from Invader Zim #3.

Art by Aaron Alexovich, from Invader Zim #3.

A: It’s a lot of fun. I laughed out loud more than once reading this comic. The first two issues were really good, but they were set up to get the series underway, and resetting the characters into position after the cartoon. This is the issue where Invader Zim comes into its own as a comic book, and we can have these great, wonderful, hilarious episodic adventures of Zim and his efforts to take over the world.

D: It’s refreshing to see a more balanced take on the brother-sister dynamic with Dib and his sister.

A: Yeah, their relationship in this issue is a little less antagonistic. Which is good, because the brother-sister antagonistic relationship gets overplayed a lot.

D: But really, you can’t go wrong when the force of evil is a Star Donkey.

A: Yes, Star Donkey is pretty great.

All hail the Star Donkey! (Art by Aaron Alexovich, from Invader Zim #3)

All hail the Star Donkey! (Art by Aaron Alexovich, from Invader Zim #3)

D: Rat Queens is also pretty great.

A: It’s certainly an enjoyable read, but you have more enthusiasm about it than I do.

D: I have an obscene amount of enthusiasm for Rat Queens. You and I both still haven’t read the first two arcs, so my enthusiasm might be a little unfounded because I don’t even know the backstory of these characters. I definitely need to buy the trades and just delve right in.

Words to live by. (Art by Tess Fowler, from Rat Queens #12)

Words to live by. (Art by Tess Fowler, from Rat Queens #12)

A: I enjoyed this one more than the previous issue. For one reason, this issue definitely passed the Bechdel test – last issue the characters pretty well talked about men the entire time, but this issue they get down to just being badass adventurers. But it’s a little odd, because none of the hooks from the previous issue are followed up on, and this issue just gives us a whole new set of hooks. The revolt at the Mage University which opened this arc? Not even mentioned. The assassin at the end of last issue? Dealt with quickly and then forgotten about. All these threads I’m sure will eventually resolve itself, but as of right now, it seems determined to add more plot threads rather than follow up an any it started.

D: But now, onto Bizarro. Which you have quite a bit to say about.

A: My love for this series is well-documented, and this is another fantastic issue. Gustavo Duarte is the artist on this title, and he is still turning in incredible work with every issue. But someone worth mentioning, who actually worked on four of the comics we’re discussing today, is the colorist: Lee Loughridge.  He, along with Pete Patazis, handles the colors on Bizarro, but also on Black Canary, Southern Cross and 1872. What’s really remarkable, is that the colors are brilliantly suited to each of the titles, but each is wildly different. Bizarro is a very bright book, very cartoonish with lots of vibrant characters and colors. It’s just wonderfully handled, and matched to Gustavo Duarte’s art fantastically. But before I stop talking about the art, I was really excited to see a special guest-artist appearance from Darwyn Cooke on the title page. I don’t actually think I have mentioned this before on the blog, but I have an enormous appreciation for Darwyn Cooke’s work. He is one of my absolute favorites, and I am incredibly excited about his new title, The Twilight Children. But we’ll talk about that one when it comes out in October.

Art by Gustavo Duarte. Art within the art by Darwyn Cooke. (From Bizarro #4)

Art by Gustavo Duarte. Art within the art by Darwyn Cooke. (From Bizarro #4)

D: Because we still have more to say about Bizarro! This issue has a flippin’ adorable premise, focusing on the childlike love which Bizzaro has for magic. When he and Jimmy find out that Zatanna is doing a magic show in the city they’re passing through, Bizarro insists they go see. During her show, Zatanna accidentally sends Bizarro through other dimensions, and when he returns, he can do magic himself.

The Magnificent Bizarro! (Art by Gustavo Duarte, from Bizarro #4)

The Magnificent Bizarro! (Art by Gustavo Duarte, from Bizarro #4)

A: One nerdy detail I would like to mention: Everyone knows about Superman’s weakness to Kryptonite, but what many are unaware of is his vulnerability to magic. As Superman’s reverse, it actually makes a lot of sense that Bizarro would have an aptitude for magic.

D: With this newly found aptitude, Bizarro inadvertently switches states with Jimmy, and dispels Zatanna’s magic (pardon the pun). Jimmy becomes “Jimzarro,” and Bizarro is now just a normal, dashing-looking gentleman. Jimzarro, just as determined to snap the perfect photo as Jimmy is, literally starts turning the whole town upside down to stage the perfect picture. And it’s up to Bizarro to stop it.

Jimzarro! (Art by Gustavo Duarte, from Bizarro #4)

Jimzarro! (Art by Gustavo Duarte, from Bizarro #4)

A: This role reversal allows for some really sweet, really effective character growth. One thing which actually bothered me as a huge Jimmy Olson fan, is that the character was being written as a jerk in this issue – he was rude to Bizarro and that wasn’t sitting well with me. But it was there for a reason, and it is addressed in this issue. The whole story addresses their perspectives on each other, and when Jimmy becomes Jimzarro he can now understand what it means to be Bizarro, and how it feels to not have anyone understand you. I think it’s actually a really poignant story, and it isn’t played sappy at all.

D: It’s sweet, and very touching. And, as is always true of this comic, funny!

A: Very funny! I think it cuts to what is so great about both of these characters, and both of these characters are just wonderful.

D: Now, onto Southern Cross. Which might be my favourite title right now.

A: You read all five issues in one sitting.

D: It was one of the best afternoons I have had all month.

A:  Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger have captured a very classic-Ridley-Scott, Alien-style, feel here, both visually, but also in terms of its pacing. One thing I remember from watching Alien as an alarmingly young child, was that I actually found the movie really boring. But what I didn’t come to appreciate until much later was that the pacing was all about building suspense, investing you in the characters so that as an alien is killing them off one by one, it actually has some gravity to it. That’s definitely the touchstone for what Becky and Andy are doing – the slow burn of the first three issues really starts paying off in the fourth, and the fifth just elevates it further. Simply put, this story is a murder mystery on a space shuttle. The art is just tremendous. I am a long time fan of Andy’s, and full disclosure, I have taken classes that he has taught and I have met him personally, so I might be biased, but this is his best work, hands down. It is absolutely brilliant, and the amount of detail he puts into each panel is incredible. Enormous shout out again to Lee Loughridge for the colours – the palette does a lot to sell the claustrophobic feel of the ship.

Some things are scarier than a xenomorph. (Art by Andy Belanger, from Southern Cross #5)

Some things are scarier than a xenomorph. (Art by Andy Belanger, from Southern Cross #5)

D: The story has a great cast of characters – our protagonist is Alex Braith, who is traveling on board the Southern Cross to investigate the death of her sister Amber. But like any good murder mystery, the ship is populated with a variety of characters, any of whom can be suspect, whether it be the ship’s captain, or the first mate, or the ship doctor. The ship’s chef is my favourite.

A: In Andy and Becky’s past work, both have really indulged their love of metal, and this one is no different. Though with some of the more hallucinatory imagery in this issue, Southern Cross is maybe a little more prog rock than heavy metal.

D: Though the art does remind me of Heavy Metal.

A: Yes! Heavy Metal, or Metal Hurlant, is a French comic book anthology magazine, and one of the magazine’s regular contributors was a gentlemen named Jean Giraud, maybe better known as Moebius. His influence in particular is really visible in this book.

D: No way! Fun fact: one of my middle names is actually Taarna, after the badass female protagonist from the Heavy Metal movie.

A: That character and that segment of the movie was actually inspired by Moebius’s Arzach comics. He also contributed storyboards to Ridley Scott’s Alien, so that brings it back around to that influence.

D: This is an amazing book, and I highly recommend doing what I did and just immersing yourself in the series for a day or two.

A: This one is a creator-owned book, published by Image Comics, and it’s a great example of how good comics can be when you let great creative teams make the comics they want to make.

D: And speaking of . . .

A: Right. Sex Criminals also came out last week, and although I read the new issue,  I will not be talking about it today. Because the release schedule of Sex Criminals has been so sporadic and so intermittent, as much as I absolutely love the series (and I do), I’m taking it off the pull list because I feel like the story is being done a disservice by being disjointed in this way. But I eagerly await the release of the trades as they come out, because it is a great series.

D: We’ve got one more comic from last week to talk about, which is Black Canary. We’ve already mentioned that the colourist is again Lee Loughridge.

Those amazing colours courtesy of Lee Loughridge. (Art by Pia Guerra, from Black Canary #4)

Those amazing colours courtesy of Lee Loughridge. (Art by Pia Guerra, from Black Canary #4)

A: And he continues to do a great job, as this issue has multiple flashback segments detailing Bo Maeve’s background, and past and present are largely distinguished by the colour palette. As for that portion of the story, I feel there were a lot of similar themes to what we are reading in Phonogram – if Maeve had an opportunity to make a deal with the King of Television she probably would.

D: But she would be the bitch trying to burn everything down.

A: She is a bitch trying to burn everything down. But before we dig deeper into the story, I need to mention the artist. We’ve got a guest artist this issue: Pia Guerra.

D: And this is a guest artist done right. I think, even better than other examples we’ve seen.

A: Well, we’ve seen it handled poorly in Omega Men, we’ve seen it handled really well in Batman, but we see it handled differently again here. Batman #44 took the opportunity to tell a done-in-one story which was tangentially relevant to the main storyline, whereas this issue of Black Canary still moves the main storyline forward significantly. What it does, though, is shift the focus to a different character, which means that the art shift isn’t jarring at all. Which it could be, because Pia Guerra has a very different style from Annie Wu. Both are always great, but honestly, I have never seen Pia Guerra look as good as she does in this issue.

D: She is spot on.

A: Of course, I really enjoyed her work on Y: The Last Man.

D: Y, I feel, pushed her to draw very realistic, whereas Black Canary lets her be a little  sketchier and grungier.

A: Exactly! Black Canary is unabashedly a punk rock comic, and so it’s a good fit here. By loosening up her inks, there is just so much more life to her art than what I ever saw in Y. I read Y in the collected hardcover editions, and there was always supplementary material at the back, including her sketchbooks and character designs. Those were just the un-inked pencils, and I was astounded by how beautiful and fluid the pencil drawings were, and the inks on the finished pages seemed to stiffen the artwork a little bit. But, good news – Black Canary #4 looks like those pencil drawings, even with the inks, and it’s just fantastic.

Moves. (Art by Pia Guerra, from Black Canary #4)

Moves. (Art by Pia Guerra, from Black Canary #4)

D: It was maybe my favourite issue last week, but then I read Southern Cross, so I’m not sure. But it’s great.

A: Now, this week’s comics: Fight Club 2. Of course, the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club. So we won’t. I don’t have much to say about it. Not because it is a bad issue – there is some really fascinating stuff happening here – but trying to describe it does it a bit of a disservice. This is maybe the first issue that readers not familiar with Fight Club (either the film or the book), might encounter a few things that won’t be especially meaningful without that history.

You do not talk about Fight Club. (Cover by David Mack.)

You do not talk about Fight Club. (Cover by David Mack.)

D: Yup. As one of those people, I agree with that statement.

A: Let’s just say, if you don’t know who Bitch-Tits is, there’s a moment in this issue which will probably make you go, “huh?”

D: But it’s not the only comic this week which might make you go “huh?”

A: Yep. The last issue of Casey & April falls into that category, and I’m a little disappointed. I expected a little bit more. I don’t want to say I feel cheated, but the entire series felt like a tease for something that will get paid off in the main Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles title.

D: I feel like we got a pretty scathing examination of April and Casey’s relationship, just to see things return to the status quo.

Love will tear us apart, but the Rat King will bring us together. (Art by Irene Koh, from TMNT: Casey & April #4)

Love will tear us apart, but the Rat King will bring us together. (Art by Irene Koh, from TMNT: Casey & April #4)

A: We do get a fascinating take on the Rat King, though. One thing that I find interesting about this current iteration of TMNT in comics right now is how many more mystical and mythological elements are brought into it. For example, the Turtles themselves in this continuity are imagined as reincarnated from ninjas, thus explaining how they mutate with fully developed personalities and skills. For example, there’s a great moment in The Secret History of Foot Clan miniseries where Mikey realizes he can read Japanese.

D: Just one of his many skills!

A: Casey & April belongs in that corner of the TMNT universe. It’s an odd series, and I want to recommend it more highly than I will because I like Mariko Tamaki, and she does some great things with the characters. Irene Koh’s art is gorgeous. But the story is just not satisfying without the context of the main TMNT book. I think that’s unfortunate, because when it is billed as a miniseries you expect it to be its own thing.

D: But one series that does deliver on the payoff this week is Batgirl!

A: Yes! We get the conclusion of the Velvet Tiger story from the previous issue. Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher have been giving us pretty concise two-part stories in this arc – first, we had the Livewire issues, and now the Velvet Tiger story. It’s well paced, but they keep it moving forward with the character drama aspects of the book. The dynamic between Barbara and Frankie, in particular, goes in a really fun direction here. It’s another fun issue. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that this is another guest artist.

You're not a superhero if you can't deliver a quip while breaking through a window. (Art by Bengal, from Batgirl #44)

You’re not a superhero if you can’t deliver a quip while breaking through a window. (Art by Bengal, from Batgirl #44)

D: Wow! They did a really good job of keeping it consistent.

A: Bengal has been a guest artist on this book before. He seems to be their go-to guest artist.

D: Which is a good idea to have.

A: His style is very compatible with Babs Tarr’s – very animated, though maybe a bit tighter and cleaner than Babs’ work.

D: Back to the story: this is a satisfying issue. We learn why the particular programmers were targeted, and I think there’s a bit of underlying commentary on the boom-and-crash nature of tech-start ups, with how young and hip this industry is portrayed both in this book, but also in pop culture in general, and the struggles of freelancers, who, of course, are largely younger people. It’s a topical issue.

A: Batgirl has always been really good at being a very modern and very contemporary title, and this issue keeps it up. But we actually see a lot more of Barbara this week, in Grayson, along with most of the extended Batman family. This is Grayson’s return to Gotham, which was handled so much better than I was worried it would be. We don’t have any pointless encounters with Bat-Jim Gord-Man, and instead we get Grayson reuniting with the people that he knows and loves in Gotham, which is at times very funny, and at times very heartfelt. While he knows and loves Bruce, Bruce, of course, no longer knows and loves him. Following up on the previous issue’s examination of identity, Grayson again assumes a whole other identity to meet with Bruce, with the help of Alfred, which frames the whole issue as performance.

A fine performance, indeed. (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #12)

A fine performance, indeed. (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #12)

D: Which was awesome!

A: It was brilliantly done. Grayson makes some big, bold decisions in this one, and I think by removing Bruce Wayne from the mentor role, he’s forced to take on an identity of his own. This is an issue that is worth reading more than once, because it is clever as hell.

D: To the point where, I don’t want to talk about it much more than that. It’s super smart, with some sweet moments, and as someone who isn’t as familiar with Grayson’s past or the extended Bat-family, it’s fun to see the dynamics between these different characters.

A: We get to see him reuniting with Bruce, but also the other past Robins, Jason Todd (now Red Hood) and Tim Drake (now Red Robin) and of course, Barbara. None of them even knew that Grayson was still alive – since Lex Luthor faked his death, he’s been under deep cover with Spyral.  But my favourite reunion is the one between Damian and Grayson – Damian was Robin to Grayson’s Batman, and they’re honestly my favourite Dynamic Duo.

I missed them, too! (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #12)

I missed them, too! (Art by Mikel Janin, from Grayson #12)

D: And speaking of Robin . . .

A: We Are Robin also gets a guest artist this month! I would almost consider this a fill-in issue, if it weren’t the best issue of the series so far. Not that the series has been bad so far. I was completely unfamiliar with James Harvey’s art beforehand, and now I want to find all of it. This neither looks like nor feels like a superhero comic.

Not an ordinary superhero comic. (Art by James Harvey, from We Are Robin #4)

Not an ordinary superhero comic. (Art by James Harvey, from We Are Robin #4)

D: It has a real youth-in-revolt, retro sort of feel to it. Kind of a ‘70s Manchester punk rock thing.

A: Which is a really good fit. This one is firmly focused on a single character, whereas the rest of the series is pretty scattered in its focus.

D: It’s refreshing.

A: This one is all about Riko, who is a character that made little impression on me in the first three issues.

D: But from the very first panel of this issue, you really get a sense of her. She’s depicted as a very realistic teenage girl, and is part of a very functional, very loving adoptive family. There is a really touching conversation that she has with her mom in which she hypothesizes about the motivations behind kids who act in such a manner.

A: Because the Robins, given a tragic event that happened in the last issue, are under a lot of public scrutiny, with debate about whether these are reckless, stupid kids who are endangering themselves, or whether they are brave and doing something good for Gotham. This issue sees Riko coping with that, examining how she stands by her convictions, and how she keeps herself inspired to keep going.

D: The coping mechanisms she uses are really interesting, and touches on one aspect of the teen-superhero story that isn’t often mentioned, which is mental health, potentially even mental illness.

A: There are a lot of stories, Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum in particular comes to mind, which raises the question of whether Batman can be considered any more sane than the people he is fighting. But he is really the only hero that gets subjected to that question. I think We Are Robin #4 very believably and realistically presents a character that I wouldn’t consider to be crazy or delusional, but in order to make the decision to put on a costume, and put your life in danger, to be a hero, you’re not going to be like everyone else, and you aren’t going to fit in. What we see in this title is a very believable take on what modern youth culture would be in a world with superheroes.

D: Similar to Plutona, with people basically capespotting, except these particula youths are kind of jerks about it, by causing trouble to draw superheroes to them, just for the sake of taking pictures of them to post on social media. For the likes and the re-tweets.

A: This series has always used Tweets and texts as a form of narration, and in this one it has been done really well, adding at times a really funny inner monologue for each of the characters. But we get another side of that superhero youth culture, in Riko herself, through her inspiration from and idolization of Batgirl. Which gives us another dose of Barbara this week, as Batgirl herself show up and has a conversation with Riko that will probably really resonate with anyone who likes superhero stories.

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Batgirl knows best. (Art by James Harvey, from We Are Robin #4)

D: Barbara tells Riko that when you put on the Robin colors, you are representing something that you have to earn. She doesn’t talk down to her, and never assumes that children can’t do this, but she acknowledges both the burden and responsibility that is tied to it.

A: It’s something that is very relevant to Batgirl herself, because she did the same. She wasn’t like Robin, who was taken in by Batman and trained. She wanted to do the right thing, she was inspired by Batman, so she took it upon herself to dress up in that same symbol and fight crime. She was a predecessor of the Robin movement, and she is very sympathetic to Riko and the Robins. She knows you can’t stop this.

D: But also knows the dangers and obstacles. Which ties into 1872 really well, because this issue is all about the consequences of standing up against what’s wrong. This is something that was really embodied in this series by Steve Rogers.

A: Steve Rogers, whether in the main Marvel universe or in any re-imagining of it, really represents what is essentially good and right, and that is true in 1872 as well, though in this issue, it’s more the inspiration he provides, because he can’t take action himself.

D: Natasha Barnes, widow of Deputy Bucky Barnes, and the fugitive Red Wolf decide to make a stand, and the previously cowardly Dr. Banner is also emboldened to take action. While Red Wolf goes after Fisk, Natasha and Dr. Banner go to blow up the dam. I think this is the most poetic thing ever.

A: Red Wolf comes into his own in this issue – he is a character that is getting his own series after this, and it is great that there will be an indigenous superhero being represented. I think it’s a shame that it won’t be Gerry Duggan and Nikole Virella steering the character going forward, because they’re doing a fantastic job on 1872. I am a complete convert to Nikole Virella’s art on this. As I mentioned last month, the promise of Doc Shaner’s art was what drew me to this book to start, but Nikole Virella is what’s kept me here – she is a more-than-adequate replacement for Doc Shaner.

D: Her art is tremendous, but the story alone is worth staying for. They pack a lot of interesting ideas and themes into this issue. We see a women’s rights march, with Captain Marvel, or I guess really just Carol Danvers, reimagined as a suffragette. There’s some politics in this book, with  the priorities and agendas of the different levels of government coming into conflict. And, we also get to see Tony Stark come into his own, finally.

A: One thing that I like about a series like this, is that because it is comparatively short-form story telling, you get concise, effective character arcs. We get that with Tony, and he gets a badass incredible moment in this issue. Although honestly the badass in this issue is Red Wolf.

D: We won’t spoil it for you, but by the end of the issue you will be screaming “Oh My God!”

A: The pacing and the whole staging of this story has been beautifully done, and it is beautifully handled in the art. As is a running theme in this instalment of Tea & Comics, I’m giving another round of applause to Lee Loughridge for giving this book the tone and palette that fits its Old West setting. I am really excited to see Red Wolf’s upcoming series, although I am curious to see how he is incorporated into the Marvel universe. Post-Secret Wars, elements of the splinter universes like this one are going to be incorporated into the main Marvel universe, and while Red Wolf is a great fit for this series, I am worried about his status moving forward in the Marvel universe because I could see him becoming a problematic character. He is an old character, going back to the less politically correct 1970s. I mean, even his name… it’s like how so many black superheroes have names like Black Panther or Black Lightning. Now, we get an aboriginal superhero, but his name is Red Wolf . . . it’s a little awkward. It’s less problematic in 1872 because he lives in a time and place that views him as a savage. I’ll have to wait and see, but I am delighted that Jeffrey Varegge, who is a member of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, will be designing and consulting for the Red Wolf series, at least.

Well, this looks promising. (Art by Jeffrey Varegge.)

Well, this looks promising. (Art by Jeffrey Varegge.)

D: Well, if 1872 is any indication, I hope it’s amazing. Because this series is fantastic.

A: I can’t believe there is only one more issue! I have no doubt that they will conclude it effectively, and without spoiling anything, I suspect there will be plenty of smashing.

D: Speaking of something green . . . even though neither of us are drinking tea right now, I did survive off of green tea all day today. I would probably not be awake for this conversation otherwise.

Art by Aaron Alexovich, from Invader Zim #3.

Art by Aaron Alexovich, from Invader Zim #3.

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