Between The Panels: Superman- Last Son

Spoiler Level: Mild

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Okay so last time, we spoke about Batman. Today, we’ll discuss Superman! Last Son is actually a storyline consisting of 5 issues and is part of the main DC continuity in the form of Action Comics (the first comic to introduce Superman. It’s like Action Comics to Superman, Detective Comics to Batman). I did tell myself not to review anything in the continuity to keep things simple, but there’s a reason I chose Last Son.

The whole Superman circle of characters, right from Ma and Pa Kent, to the people at Daily Planet to General Zod and Co. are stripped down to their absolute basic forms and explored all over again. This makes Last Son a great place to start if you’ve just started at getting to know Superman. It’s also a nice little treat that will surely earn good ole Clark a place in your heart.

It’s written by Geoff Johns. You’ll be hearing this name quite a lot in your comic reading career. He’s written shit loads of famous comic books, and he’s even in thick with the movie publishers and studios and all that. So basically, he’s a big deal. We’ve also got Richard Donner. Name ring a bell? He’s the director of the original Superman movies (the first two, at least), and surprise surprise, Last Son contains many elements straight out of those movies while also going on to inspire later projects such as Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (which is like a love letter to Donner, probably why it didn’t quite work out) and even the most recent, Man of Steel (very slightly though, only garnish). On the artwork side, there’s Andy Kubert. He’s another genius and we’ll talk about him in a minute.

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A spaceship crash lands in Metropolis containing a small kid that the authorities determine to be Kryptonian. Superman assumes responsibility of this kid and decides to raise him as his son with the help of Lois Lane. However, things go south when General Zod turns up and it is revealed that the kid is actually his son whom he used as a tool to escape captivity from the Phantom Zone and wants to take over Earth. Now, it’s up to Superman to stop the bad guys and save the day. Also, Supes’ arch nemesis, Lex Luthor is hiding somewhere plotting schemes of his own. That’s pretty much the outline of the story. Let’s talk a little about the different characters that fit into it.

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The Superman in this story is pretty much the classic Superman that everyone knows and loves. He’s good natured, always trying to do the right thing and terribly likable. But, this version felt a little more in control. He wishes bystanders and the public looks up to him. His renowned boy scout morale is well in place. However, when the authorities decide to take away the alien kid for further testing, Superman is engaged and this brings forth a key aspect about Superman. It’s that he is his own authority and will not bear to fall under any kind of power or influence. Only lasting a page, the incident vivaciously and effectively tells us that though the Man of Steel is goody goody most of the time, it does not translate to him becoming a puppet or compromiser of ideals in any way.

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As Clark Kent, we don’t get to see him much in the Planet, but it seems like he’s become more confident than the usual bumbling pretense that he puts up, probably best characterised by his facial expressions (which we’ll talk about more in the Andy Kubert section), and quick wit. The way he interacts with everyone is very organic. My only gripe is that Superman and Clark feel like the same person. I always loved the contrast between the two. But that’s more of a personal thing anyway.
It’s almost as if Superman/Clark act as a medium through which the more philosophical characters such as his father(s), Lex or even Zod convey the essence of the comic to us, the readers.

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So Lois Lane. Quite simply, the ingredients that make up a great Lois character are confidence, strength, independence, fearlessness, boisterousness, and this fine line that divides worldly and introverted. The Lois in question has all of these features, albeit she’s a little more careful. This could be regarding the alien kid in her care or even just generally. There may not be quite a lot of romance between her and Clark, but they have some amount of banter. And that’s enough to tell us how their frequencies match and why they get along so well with each other. She had this one line in the first issue that really cracked me up. We don’t get to see much of her journalist skills, but that’s just how the events progress. The one thing I love about Lois is that, in any comic book, not only this one, even if the story sees her as just a character on the sidelines, she’s always determined to run towards the center stage. So no matter what, you can’t ignore her. That’s just how Lois Lane is. Quite unforgettable. Also, never thought I’d say this, but her short hair in Last Son looks kinda good.

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Okay, so what’s the deal with the kid? Lois and Clark decide to name him Christopher (obviously, after Christopher Reeve). So Chris Kent is quite lovable and cute, but he’s not just an asset that falls into trouble, needing rescue. He’s not like one of those ‘special’ kids from the sci-fi movies who gets kidnapped by the bad guy and when the bad guy starts beating the good guy up, the kid unleashes his hidden power, Chris isn’t anything like that. This kid has had a troubled past. We may not quite realize it, and to be honest, he may not either, but he’s actually just trying to move on. Not like after a break up. His dad was Zod. That’s not good news right there. And obviously, Zod isn’t the type of father who comes home and plays football with his kid. He abused Chris. However, he does get some happy moments too. Like when him, Lois and Clark go for a walk, it almost feels like they’re a small family. Appropriately placed dialogue, with clever facial art make us feel everything Chris does, be it pain, love or hope.

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While General Zod retains all of his “Kneel Before Me” glory, like all characters in Last Son, he has been stripped down to mark 1. However, his history with Jor-El (Superman’s real dad) has been tweaked a little to offer readers an alternative perspective and depth on the events leading to Krypton’s destruction. I like how they did that as now, we can actually debate for or against Zod’s past actions rather than just condemning his evil. I think Zack Snyder took a page off here, while writing Man of Steel.
He also brings to the table insight into a few Kryptonians who make their appearance in the story, such as Non (the giant guy who tags along Zod) former scientist, who suffered a tragic fate and psycho killer, Jax-Ur.

Then there’s Lex Luthor. It’s hard to break down such a complex character, but Johns somehow manages it, to a degree at least. No good Superman comic is without a crazy Lex-Supes verbal confrontation, and Last Son isn’t an exception. The reason Lex gives for not killing his nemesis even when possessing means to do so is as intriguing as it is enlightening on what exactly Lex feels about Superman. He plays a huge role towards the end of the series and I’m going to leave it to you guys to experience.

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I feel like two other characters deserve mention.
The first one is Mon-El, another alien from planet Daxam (reading about Daxamites, their biological similarities to Kryptonians and their conservative culture is more interesting than you’d expect) from Clark’s younger days. He turns up help Clark through a certain part of the story. The bittersweet tale from their past is explored in the Action Comics Annual. Mon-El’s inclusion adds that layer of melancholic longing and promise to Last Son.
And the other person in Jimmy Olsen, Daily Planet photographer. He is going to become an important Superman character in other comics so keep him in mind. Here, he is shown as a newbie, trying his best to climb up the ranks. He almost feels like Clark in his early days of work, with the tendency to make bumbling mistakes and that tinge of self doubt. There’s a scene where his editor Perry White compares Jimmy’s photographs with that of the rival newspaper’s and that very much reminded me of J. Jonah Jameson and Peter Parker from Spiderman.

So it’s clear that Johns truly understands these deceivingly simple concepts that float around the worlds oldest superhero. He has crafted some bright, yet subtle characters and has placed them in a story that is so very well carved out of an apt situation. But of course, none of this would’ve come to life without Andy Kubert’s amazing artwork.

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I love how every detail in the landscape shots gets equal preference. This contributes greatly towards the realism of the world being created. The same goes for the characters. Kubert knows how to make them speak just through their expressions. The way in which he makes the characters react to certain dialogue, changing their expressions panel to panel almost makes it feel like they’re moving in front of you.
I’ve had a bad experience with depictions of extra dimensional spaces (except probably Interstellar’s tesseract) and I was really worried about how the Phantom Zone would turn out in this book. But Kubert does it justice. It doesn’t have infinite loops or stuff flying into abyss or anything. He makes it loos and feel like what the Phantom Zone should: haunting and void-like. You’ll almost believe that time actually stops in there. It is really a sight to behold.
There’s no dearth of action in Last Son and Kubert doesn’t skimp on anything even in this field. You can trace back the shot to stuff exploding, shattering and being ripped apart, giving you an idea of just how powerful these beings are, without actually reaching Man of Steel destruction porn level. Speaking of which, the comic still does look like it’s straight out of a high budget Hollywood movie. Plus there’s also this one part where Supes engages in hand to hand combat without his powers. You don’t get to see that a lot in Superman comics. Cool stuff. In the end, it’s all about setting the tone, and although the coloring is singularly tinted, it does manage to be versatile in the way it makes you feel. Honestly, how that happens is beyond me, but I can totally vouch for it. I mean, I could hear John Williams’ Superman March play in my head while reading, so that’s gotta be enough right?

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Last Son is a great read. Unlike many modern Superman comics, this one doesn’t rely on nostalgia, references or easter eggs. That’s probably my favorite thing about it. I love the fact that this comic establishes itself as the blueprint and the norm.
In the beginning and also the ending, Jor-El reminds his son that though he looks like humans, he isn’t one of them.
Kryptonians, they’re an advanced species, living with no regard for the more humble and simple things around them. Their ignorance and exploitation of Krypton’s nature is what ultimately led to its doom. I think in a way, we humans are headed there too… These are some of the concepts that Last Son dwells into secretly. Obviously, among the more obvious things it does.

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So Last Son by Geoff Johns, Richard Donner and Andy Kubert. Amazing plot, characters and artwork. Go read it.
Cheers.

Between The Panels: Batman- The Long Halloween

Spoiler Level: Mild

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We’ll start off this series with the incredibly well known Batman classic, The Long Halloween, written by my personal favorite comic book duo, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, a partnership that really blossomed through the ages.

This book was the source of inspiration for some of the concepts seen in Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and is also one of Christian Bale’s favorite comics. As you read, you’ll actually reminiscence about some of the scenes from the movies.

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The story is set early in Batman’s career. He’s fit into this life of a vigilante and with a clear agenda, has been effectively taking out the thuggies keeping the streets of Gotham safe.
Then we have Jim Gordon who’s not quite commissioner yet, but is his gruffy and thoughtful self that we love. And of course, there’s Harvey Dent, the new hotshot DA in town.
Gotham City is in the stronghold of crime lord Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, who is pretty much at the peak of his power. His only competition is Salvatore Maroni. The trio decide to rid their city from the clutches of the feuding crime families, however agreeing not to cross the line of justice.

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A serial killer pops out of nowhere and starts murdering the members of the mob on a holiday every month, which earns him/her the moniker “Holiday”. The weapon of choice, a small caliber handgun is always left behind at the crime scene along with an item that symbolizes that particular holiday (for example, a fruit basket on Thanksgiving).

That’s the main premise of the story and as it progresses, a number of different components start tying into it.
It keeps you engrossed as you just want to know who dies next and what’s gonna happen. Loeb sets the pace perfectly with well spaced dialogue and intelligent timing. At the same time, you’ll be trying to guess the identity of the culprit.

The plot thickens, things are going down, the list of suspects is building and the mystery starts affecting well, pretty much everyone, though mostly, our three heroes. That’s what the story is primarily about. They’ve bet their cards in this game, and all three have something or the other to lose. Harvey’s wife is growing her suspicions of him, and this is affecting their marriage (among other shit that happens), Gordon isn’t able to spend quality time with his family, and Bruce is questioning the difference that Batman is making and as he watches people die, he is worried sick of his impeding failure as the city’s protector. And then a speculation from his father’s past resurfaces to haunt poor Bruce. There’s loads of character development, and even the less important characters get ample panel time.

Jeph Loeb brings out an aspect of Batman that we don’t get to see that often. And that’s of the world’s greatest detective. Instead of Alfred feeding him with all he needs to know from his almighty Bat-computer or using ridiculous tech to look for clues, Batman himself is placed at the crime scene, collecting evidence, working with the authorities and doing his deductions. It’s a thrill to watch him!

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The Batman-Catwoman relationship has always been more complex than rocket science. This time, she’s sort of juggling lives by being Bruce’s quasi-girlfriend as Selina and as the Cat, she makes her mysterious appearances at convenient times during the Batman’s investigations. She adds a bit of romance to the story. Estranged, yes but romance nonetheless. And this is well realized after reading the Poison Ivy chapter (read it, I won’t tell you!).

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And then comes Calendar Man. He was sort of a joke of a villain in the 90s and The Long Halloween tries to change that. He is in Arkham Asylum but confrontations with him are as cold and creepy as the abstract connection he seems to have with Holiday (after all, he commits crimes on certain days of the calendar too). And when you realize Cal is Batman’s only hope, you know that shit’s gotten real.

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I’ve always hated crime lords. But this book shows us the POV of both the Falcones and the Maronis, what they really feel towards the city and their own family members and where their heart is really at. They’re sort of humanized. To top it off, the feud between these two crime families is handled with Godfather level subtlety.

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The book also shows us the rise of Batman’s real rogue gallery from small time crooks to the crazy costumed supervillains in all their glory that we know today. The Joker makes his dramatic entrance. Solomon Grundy is’nt quite as zombie-like as I would’ve liked, he’s more baby-ish, but that’s fine. The Riddler is depicted as a bumbling fool and it’s amusing to watch as he’s bullied by the Falcones and the Batman alike. Scarecrow looks different, but is as disturbing and perverse as ever. Finally and most importantly, TLH is the definitive origin story of Two Face. We get to witness every single moment in Harvey’s life that leads to his fall. Like The Dark Knight movie suggests, it could’ve been any one of the three. But Harvey was stretched the furthest and he snapped.

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Okay, I’ve lauded Jeph Loeb enough. Let’s talk about Tim Sale’s artwork. At first, to be honest I found it appalling. I was coming off Ethan van Sciver’s art and his stuff is like, what movie reveals and wallpapers are made of. But as I kept reading TLH, I realized how synergistic Sale’s artwork was with Loeb’s story and found myself loving it more and more. van Sciver made his characters look like Greek Gods, whereas Sale’s were more relatable. You can see all their flaws and every tiny expression that makes them who they are. I love his use of dark colors that just flow into the shadows, just sets the moody tone.
He does exaggerate some of the costumed characters though. Right from the Joker’s absurdly large teeth, Catwoman’s whiskers and movable tail (I’m not joking), Poison Ivy’s infinite tree like hair to Batman himself, whose cape just bleeds onto the surface he’s standing on making him look like a real creature of the dark. But all this ain’t bad, really. It adds a surrealistic template to the book. This is what makes the crazies, well crazy.
Another thing I really love about the art is that whenever Holiday’s about to kill someone, the colors change to black and white, making the whole sequence film noir. This adds a unbeatable dash of suspense and mystery.

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The Long Halloween has got heart. It’s a tale about friendship and brotherhood. About how crime takes a toll on the cruelest of criminals and the most innocent of victims alike. Aaron Eckhart’s famous line about dying a hero makes perfect sense here.

Although it is self contained, the impact TLH had on later mainstream Batman stories is massive. It’s a story worth reading, and rereading. And in my opinion, a great place to start. So, what are you waiting for? Get at it.

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Cheers.

Between The Panels

 
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Meet Jake. Jake loves superheroes. He loves the DC movies. Somewhere in his heart, there has always been an urge to connect more deeply with Batman and Superman. Moreover, 2016 is shaping to be an important year for DC regarding film. He had never been exposed to comics before, sadly. So what better time than now, to start reading right? Well, that’s what Jake thought.

He stopped dead in his tracks after realizing the sheer vastness of the comic book world, filled with plethora of material. Jake just did not have a clue where to begin. Much to his chagrin too, nor did he know that many of said comic book elements (characters, items, stuff…) even existed. He felt helpless.

“Between The Panels” is a series of blogposts dedicated to help people like Jake: newbies to comic reading, to jump right in the wonderful and very very colorful universe that DC Comics has forged over the decades and experience some of the best stories ever told.

Getting to into superhero comic reading is very daunting. It’s like a train that moves very fast without stopping, and the only way to get in is to grab onto the handrails and jump aboard. The speed will make you feel uneasy at first but you’ll grow to love it.

Anyway, enough analogy. I’m gonna talk about a few things you might wanna do/know before going any further in your journey. Let’s get to it.

1. Comic book stores aren’t what they used to be. The one seen in Big Bang Theory, owned by Stuart, that’s a fantasy for many people. In countries like mine, the situation is even worse. But if you do happen to be lucky enogh to have one nearby, make sure to visit the regularly, keep an eye out for issues on your to-read list and ask around to gather as much info as possible.

2. You can buy comics online, but it’ll cost you more (hardcover prices are off the hook, even in the US). I live in India, and here it can range anywhere from Rs.500 to Rs.5000 (that’s around $8 to $75). Just like movies and songs nowadays, comics too are available in digital formats. While that doesn’t beat the feel of holding a real book and reading, it certainly is more convenient to obtain. If you want to make a purchase, head over to comiXology, a site from Amazon itself and pretty much the center for all digital comic sales on the internet. Beware, some issues’ price tag may look tempting, but such things usually belong to a series. Put all the issues in the series together and you’ll be looking at a massive bill. For example, each issue in Injustice: God’s Among Us costs say, 1$. There are 5 ‘years’ in total to be read, and each ‘year’ consists of 24 issues. Do the math and then tell me if your smirking jaw didn’t drop to your expensive Italian marbled floor.

3. Like all things in today’s world, comics can be found free. Of course, piracy isn’t cool, but hey, not all of us got the means or the money. Besides, after 5 or 6 good reads, you’ll feel obligated to pay for them in the future anyway. For now, go to Get Comics.

4. I’m sure if you felt driven to read comics, you hold some amount of knowledge about the characters and all, but it won’t hurt to do some more background research. You don’t have to memorize their Wikipedia page or anything, just give it a brief look. You can visit the DC Wiki site too. It’s better summarized there. So do read about some of the characters of your liking, their important storylines and if possible, about a few famous authors, artists and their styles of work.

5. DC Comics have a continuity. This means that there exists a main timeline which contains interconnected many, many stories and more importantly, “events”. Since it doesn’t look like much of an option to read the whole damn thing right from the 1960s to current day (you can read it once you’re hardcore, maybe), it’s better to choose something that’s out of the continuity. Don’t worry, I’ll help you out, there.

6. Attend the annual Comic Con, if your city hosts it. And instead of ogling away at leather clad girls dressed as Catwoman or Black Canary or something, or clicking away a million selfies, take a moment and talk to the cosplayers. They are usually very passionate towards these stuff and some of them are actually nice enough to make conversation!

7. Join online communities like Comic Vine or the DC Sub-Reddit to keep updated about what’s hot and happening and if there’s any new stuff that’s worth reading. Once you’ve read a few classics from the past, your inner comic book gut will be demanding for the balance between books from yesterday and the books coming out right now. It’s like listening to music. We listen to a lot of older songs, but still keep an ear open for a nice tune from today’s time. Also, Comic Vine acts as a great check list of sorts, as it helps you check all the issues in a volume, complete with the necessary information. Also check out Comicstorian on YouTube.

8. Read slowly and savor the experience. Most people new to comics rush through the text and don’t stop to look at the artwork. This also happens while reading on a smartphone, as it isn’t always the most comfortable thing to read on a ~5 inch screen (tablets help though). When I first started reading, I used to rush through the speech bubbles, without stopping to look at the art, unless there was something important going on, or if it was a full page panel (or if Lois Lane was bending over). As a result, the whole story felt disconnected and the progression just fell apart. I would reread the whole thing, making sure to (almost) inspect each panel. It made a dramatic difference and gave me a sense of satisfaction I didn’t feel since I had sex with my imaginary girlfriend. I learnt that the artwork is the most important part of the comic. A friend of mine once said, “Like words to a novel, art and illustrations to comics”. Every stroke, every shade variation matters and that’s what sets the tone and takes you away to the world of the story being read. So go slowly, there’s no hurry. Stop to look at the illustrations. Run them over in your head, and feel the effect they produce.

9. Speaking of speech bubbles, as you read the text in them, try saying them in your mind. And not just normally, but like how you think they actually sound according to the situation they’re in or just the kind of person they are. For example, we are well aware of how Catwoman talks. I’m talking about her legendary flirtatious, teasing, confident phone sex like twang that she has in her speech. Apply that to her bubbles (hopefully, that didn’t sound wrong). If you come across a new character, just study and observe them for a few pages and then begin to say their lines. This helps in bringing depth to the relationship between you, the reader and the characters. Also, comics take us to some really crazy places and times with a variety of bizarre people and beings. Obviously, they sound unusual and comics acknowledge this fact by changing the outline of the speech bubble and the font of the text in it. For example, Booster Gold’s sidekick, Skeets is a robot. It speaks in this computerized manner. So the font is changed to sharp and digital like. Do your best impression of a robot and you’ll be good. Similarly, The Spectre, an omniscient, godlike being has his own custom bubble. It has this green aura around it and the text is also made ominous and unholy looking. I like to imagine that he sounds like Morgan Freeman on steroids.

10. Lastly, if you’re feeling bored while reading a certain comic, put it down for a while and pick up another one, something easier to digest. You may find yourself reading more than one comic in the beginning, trying to find that right balance, but soon you’ll grow accustomed to reading one at a time. Just don’t give up on a comic.

I’m not gonna do a deep analysis of comic books, just a brief review like thing really. Sure, there are millions of people who review comic book stuff, but “Between The Panels” is meant for beginners, from a beginner (moi). So, you know, relatibility.

As most of the stuff that you’ll be reading will be in .cbr or .cbz format, we’ll need a trusty reader. Get Comic Rack. It may not look too pretty, but trust me, it’s the most functional reader I’ve seen. It’s donate-ware, so you’ll have all the options for free (but yeah, you’ll have to deal with ads in the Android version. TBH, it isn’t a huge problem). Go to Play Store to get it on your Android smartphone.

I’ll be posting from this series twice a week, hopefully. So, look forward for that. Also, if you know anyone who wants to get into reading comics, spread the word to them. I’ll be grateful.

Cheers and happy reading!