Monday, June 28, 2010

Funnybook Battle: Powers vs Batman!

So last week was one hell of a week for funnybooks. I got two of my favorite current on-going comics, two of my favorite “pulp” comics, a new issue of a mini from my favorite funnybook writer, and tried out a new mini-series. All this equals happy me.

But! As I sat down to write my usual one-week-later reviews, it hit me: I held in my hands the most recent issues of the two best on-going series currently in print. Now, I’m not talking about mini-series here, or six-issue storylines by top-notch creative teams, or even annual OGNs like Scott Pilgrim. I’m talking about on-going funnybook series. Books with dedicated creative teams working at long-form serialized storytelling. Now, that sort of thing is still pretty much the industry standard, and I still read a good bit of it (Daytripper, Fables, the Boys, etc), but two books really stand head-and-shoulders above the rest to my mind, and I’m hard-pressed to say which is the better on-going funnybook. So I decided to just work it out in front of you, my adoring audience. And thus, I give you…

Bendis vs Morrison!
Marvel vs DC!
Realism vs Fantasy!
Or, more to the point…

POWERS vs BATMAN!


Powers by Bendis and Oeming
Batman by Grant Morrison and a Plethora of Artists

So what makes these the best long-form funnybooks currently running? Complexity. Writing that rewards re-reading. Unspoken details that add up to more than what’s obviously on the page. Top-notch artwork. Longevity combined with a consistent and diligent dedication to quality. Each is the best example on the market of very different approaches to super hero fantasy, but they ultimately have a lot more in common than not.

Powers has always been, and remains, state-of-the-art stuff, a delirious marriage of story and art that’s been running for ten years now, and just keeps getting better. This is Bendis’ most intelligent work, filled with flawed characters revealed through small actions, characters whose depth rears up unexpectedly when the big stuff happens. We’re currently getting a tour of lead character Christian Walker’s head, for instance, and I’m surprised at every turn how much sense it all makes. Walker’s always felt distant to me. He started the series as a man with secrets, and an outer stoicism that’s kept him at arm’s length for me in spite of everything we’ve learned about him over the years. Or so it seemed. Because now, as the life he’s slowly built for himself in recent months comes crashing down around him, his reactions track perfectly for me. Of course this is how he reacts to [SPOILER] his fiance leaving him. He shuts down and gets drunk. [/SPOILER]

Because of course he does. This is how Walker responds to tragedy. After Zora died, he left the police force. And even after he came back (in retrospect, anyway), he was in mourning for pretty much the rest of series one, and probably part of series two as well. His life in general has been defined by periods of intense interest in human affairs followed by periods of sullen withdrawal. We caught glimpses of it in the flashback issues at the end of series one, and we’ve seen it consistently throughout all three series. It’s nothing that’s ever been spelled out, and nothing I’ve ever thought about too much before this, but… Yeah. Walker’s actions in this issue are the only thing that makes sense for him. That’s good writing over time, and I admire the hell out of it.

Artist Mike Oeming is really coming into his own these days, too. I’ve always enjoyed his work, but now… Holy shit. The most recent issue (#5) is a gorgeous thing. The looser line Oeming’s been using on this third series clicks here, and suddenly it’s like I’m looking at the work of a modern-day Toth. There’s one two-page spread of buildings that absolutely takes my breath away, and it’s just a credit sequence! Then we get a spread dealing with a future vision suffered by Walker’s fiance Heather, and wow. It’s all swirling images in liquid and steam, laid out with such skill that I never once questioned where my eye was supposed to go next. If there’s better pages being produced in comics today… they’re being produced by JH Williams. But Oeming’s still a strong number two.

Grant Morrison’s Batman, on the other hand, lacks the bravura artistic performance of a Mike Oeming. It also lacks artistic consistency, with every three issues of Batman and Robin, and EVERY issue of Return of Bruce Wayne being drawn by different people. Granted, most of that art’s been nice. But the only guy turning in truly transcendent work on Morrison’s scripts has been Frank Quitely, whose medical (and deadline) problems have prevented him from doing anything beyond the first three issues of BatRob. And the lack of a guiding artistic hand really does hurt the series. There’s nobody developing a distinctive likeness of the cast, no consistent visual language to tie the various plotlines together, and any creative layout (like Cam Stewart’s Bat-Nightmare triptych from a few months back) seems to come mostly from Morrison. There’s even a major plot device in the current storyline that’s looked like either a book or a lockbox depending on who was drawing it. So Powers kicks Batman’s ass all over the artistic front.

But it’s Morrison’s scripts that bring me to the table on this book anyway. Return of Bruce Wayne, being about a centuries-spanning mystery and the mythologizing of the super hero as a concept, is mostly brilliant on a plot level. Morrison’s been dropping hints about this story for months, and it’s nice to see it all falling into place. We get a bit of character development on Bruce Wayne as we go, but Morrison’s Bruce is such an elemental figure (especially here, stripped of his memory and bouncing confusedly through time) that he’s more effective as a catalyst, a force of nature that shapes the lives of those around him. Morrison’s long-term development on Bruce is pretty great, dealing (I think) with him regaining his center after the Bane incident. But we’re not to the end of that story just yet, so time will tell.

Over in BatRob, though, we’re learning more about Dick and Damian with each passing issue. I like Morrison’s brash and confident Dick Grayson, but Damian is turning out to be a masterpiece of a character. His mixture of arrogant over-confidence and secret devotion to his teachers (not so secret to Dick anymore, I don‘t think) is a joy to read, and a far cry from the one-dimensional “Bat-Brat” you get whenever the character appears anywhere else. All this character work is revealed, though, through small moments rather than big epiphanies. When Dick defends his plan for bringing the Bat-Clone back to life by simply saying that he works without a net, his character, from 1942 to the present, suddenly snaps into proper perspective and makes sense to me for the first time ever.

All that subtlety and skill is coupled, though, with boatloads of genius, batshit-crazy stuff. Take the most recent Batman comic, Return of Bruce Wayne #3: it features Pirate Batman! Or, as they were calling him around the funnybook store last week, Batbeard! (Scurvy, the Cabin Boy Wonder, is present only in spirit.) This is a comic in which a time-jumping Bruce Wayne meets Blackbeard! [SPOILER] An entire native tribe lives in the Batcave and worships Batman like a god! There’s piratey double-crosses, bat-fletched arrows, and a passage filled with burning blue flames! [/SPOILER] It guest-stars Jack Valor, the Black Pirate! Batman has a sword-fight with Blackbeard on a bridge made of human bones! For god’s sake!

This over-the-top fantasy approach is what separates Morrison’s work so much from what Bendis is doing over on Powers. As a police procedural look at super heroes, that book has had a “realist” approach from day one. As realist as you can get in a story that’s got people with super powers fighting crime in brightly-colored spandex, anyway. But that sort of sci-fi realism has been informing Marvel’s storytelling approach for the better part of the past decade. It’s been especially prominent since Civil War, which took some of Powers’ core themes about the proper role of super heroes in society, and ran with them. Marvel found different answers to the questions, of course, and didn’t handle them as well overall. But that only makes Powers the kind of book Marvel wishes it was publishing, the finest example of long-form, intelligent, realistic super heroes on the market today.

Much like Morrison’s Batman is the best example of the sort of highly-imaginative, intelligent, long-form super heroes that DC wants to publish. But (for my money, at least) nobody’s doing it very well except for Morrison. Too often, “imagination” is replaced by “continuity,” and it all falls to shit. Making sense of Dick Grayson by reconciling the cheeky youthful acrobat with the man living in the shadow of the Bat is one thing. Coming up with intricate explanations for every seeming continuity flaw ever is quite another, and DC gets up to far more of the latter than they should.

So there we have it. The very best examples of the Big Two comics companies’ competing storytelling styles. Very exciting, and very contentious. Except that… Ultimately? Morrison and Bendis use a lot of the same techniques to their very different ends. Neither man is given to painful exposition on these books, and both prefer to define character by degrees. I’ve often said that what goes UNsaid in Powers is far more important than what the characters are actually talking about, and the same can be said of Morrison’s work. It’s that subtlety, that actual textbook example of good writing, that draws me to both men’s work. It’s also the quality that makes these the best continuing funnybooks going today.

So which one’s better? Hmm. Still a hard call. I think Morrison’s the better writer of the two when it’s all said and done. His work has an intricacy and thematic depth that Bendis can almost, but not quite, match. But Powers is a far better pure funnybook experience. It’s a true marriage of art and story, as opposed to the Bat-artists too often serving as art robots for Morrison’s genius. On the other hand, Morrison’s pulling all this off on an in-continuity Big Corporate Funnybook, and Bendis‘ work in that sphere doesn‘t come close to this level of quality. So there’s your trade-off.

But I think I may have to give the call to Powers and its truer creative partnership. Writing may be more important to me, but art really does matter. At least when it’s as good as the art of Mike Oeming. Still, the proof is in the grades, and the grades make it a photo finish…

Powers #5
Grade: A

Return of Bruce Wayne #3
Grade: A

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