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Bend It Like Bendis

Longbox Graveyard #96

I’ve made few pains to hide my biases here at Longbox Graveyard. Readers who have stuck with me for the last hundred-odd weeks won’t be surprised when I say I favor the Silver and Bronze Age of comics to contemporary books, or that I prefer four-color superheroes to the grim vigilantes of the current age. I am stuck in the past, and happily so.

Let's Level With Daredevil!

There are exceptions. One of my earliest reviews at Longbox Graveyard — and one of my highest grades — went to Ed Brubaker’s 2004-12 run on Captain America. I gave high marks to The Walking Dead and have favorably reviewed digital initiatives like Condito Comics’ Operation Ajax, or DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight. I named Saga my best book of the year for 2012. In my “Few 52” Podcast last I even admitted affection for DC’s controversial reboot of their superhero line. My reading isn’t entirely confined to comics of the past.

Spend any time reading contemporary comics and you’re going to encounter Brian Michael Bendis. After starting his career at Caliber and Image Comics, Bendis has become one of Marvel’s most prolific writers, cutting his teeth on Marvel’s Ultimate line, and becoming a mainstay on Marvel event books and Avengers titles. But it was Bendis’ lengthy run on Daredevil that first got my attention, and really got me to thinking about comics as a storytelling form.

Daredevil, Alex Maleev

Alex Maleev’s Daredevil does a mean Buscema Slouch!

Starting in 2001, and working primarily with artist Alex Maleev, Bendis crafted a spectacular fifty-odd issue Daredevil run that ranks among the best for a character that has seen signature work from some of the field’s top talents. Bendis’ take is grim, realistic, and street-level. With his identity revealed, Matt Murdoch is pressed to the breaking point and beyond, crossing the line from vigilante to criminal in his fight for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a sophisticated and emotionally-mature work that offers an in-depth look at identity and ethics through the lens of a comic book. It is less about costumes than it is a gritty crime drama that would be perfectly at home on film or as an HBO drama.

I thought it was a great story.

I also thought it was a very poor comic book story.

It’s going to seem like I’m picking on Bendis here but that is not my intent. I quite like his stories — I read and enjoyed this entire Daredevil run, and I like what I’ve seen of his other Marvel titles. He’s committed to his craft; seems like a genuinely nice guy; and runs a great Tumblr blog that I shamelessly plunder for my Instagram feed. Bendis is hugely successful in his field — he certainly doesn’t need my endorsement, and criticism at Longbox Graveyard isn’t going to bring him to his knees.

I’ve selected Bendis only because his style bends the comics form until it breaks.

Consider the image below, which is typical of Bendis’ work. To my mind, this is not a comic book. This is an explosion in the word balloon factory.

Of course, it is a comic book. It is a story told with words and pictures and the only limitations imposed on the form are those created by artists and writers (and bloviating bloggers). What I’m getting at is that this is far from an ideal use of the form. It is not a story that takes advantage of the things that comics do well (and in some cases, do better an any other form of storytelling). This story feels like a teleplay or a radio drama force-fitted into comic book form where the characters are reduced to visual anchors for Bendis’ (generally quite good) dialogue and characterization.

This style of storytelling reminds me more of a fumetti or photonovel than anything else.

photonovel form

(And fotonovels can be artistic in their own right, but this seems rarely the case).

Many fans and critics will not see a problem here. Bendis has a shelf-full of Eisner Awards, so what do I know? But I still see this run as a missed opportunity. It told a great story of a very dark period of Matt Murdoch’s life but it did so in spite of being a comic, not because of it. Very little about the comic book form was used to good effect. Save for the (occasional) appearance of men in costume beating the crap out of each other, you might not recognize it as a superhero comic book at all.

If I’ve called out this Daredevil run as being especially ill-suited to comics, it’s only fair that I provide a counterexample that more fully explores the dimensions of the form.

Comparing apples to oranges, here’s a two-page spread from the recent vintage of Daredevil #1 by Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera.

Paolo Rivera & Mark Waid

Not every page of every comic is going to be like this (just like not every page of Bendis’ work swarms with word balloons), but this does serve to make a point. There’s so much to unpack in this panel — and much of what happens here can happen only in comics. Unique to the form is a single master shot that in still form depicts both time and motion with multiple portrayals of our principle characters — Matt Murdoch and Foggy Nelson. In this single image we see two worlds at the same time — the mundane world that Foggy perceives (watch out for that doggy doo, Councillor!) and the world revealed by Matt’s enhanced senses. Matt’s world is a mosaic of smells, vibrations, and overheard conversations brilliantly displayed with inset panels emphasizing tiny details inside this same master shot. Add to this a balance between words and art — which lets us admire Rivera’s scene-setting draftsmanship, while at the same time wonderfully framing Waid’s dialogue that advances the story and illuminates character — and we lose ourselves in a story that fully embraces (rather than fights) everything that comics do well.

While any kind of story can be told in comics, I am most interested in those that can only or best be told in comics form — where words AND pictures are used to best effect. To be fair, many of the comics I laud here at Longbox Graveyard do not fit this description — for all that I cherish Silver and Bronze Age superhero stories, they don’t always take best advantage of the form. At the same time, these classic stories weren’t trying to be anything other than comic books. They might not always have been great comics, but they weren’t trying to be film or television (for the most part), and when Steranko or Paul Gulacy adopted cinematic techniques in their comics art, it was as a means of revolutionizing or revitalizing the comic book form, rather than imitating another type of media.

But there is very little competition for the heart of an old-time comic book reader such as myself. If you want those kinds of stories, there’s really only one place to get them — old comics.

Master of Kung Fu, Paul Gulacy & Doug MoenchMaster of Kung Fu, Paul Gulacy & Doug Moench

My problem with the Bendis approach is that by electing not to play to the particular strength of comics, Bendis can’t help but compete with other forms of media which do these kinds of tales as well or better. With all this character-driven dialogue (which Bendis does very well), I can’t help but feel I’m reading a television script. Rather than read Bendis’ Daredevil, a part of me would rather re-watch The Wire or The Sopranos. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from doing both, but I come to comics with a set of expectations, and one of those expectations is that they are going to give me a story that I can’t get anywhere else, whether it is a cosmic Jack Kirby space epic, or the unique exploration of the printed page demonstrated by Will Eisner. When a comic tale puts aside so many of its tools and techniques in favor of dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue (however clever), I can’t help but feel some fundamental aspect of the form has gone missing.

Bendis wears me out with his dialogue-heavy style, but I do like his stories, so I thought I’d search for his work in other forms.

I thought I’d struck paydirt with the motion comics version of SpiderWoman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. After all, I kept thinking of Bendis’ work as a television script. What could be better than a comic book animatic?

Unfortunately, this form wasn’t much better than a Bendis comic. Without all those word balloons it looked cleaner, but the story was still too talky and static. Practically the entire first episode was two characters talking on a bus. Even Sandra Bullock and a satchel full of TNT would have a hard time livening up this scene. Maybe it gets better in later episodes, but I couldn’t be bothered.

More recently, though, I have found that the man and the hour have met at last in Bendis’ relaunch of the Guardians of the Galaxy. No, not the best-selling comic. I’m talking about the “Infinite Comics” prequel stories that have been made available for free in the run-up to the new series.

This format is still clearly a comic. There’s no distracting audio, and the reader controls the pace of the presentation. Transitions and scenes are presented in conventional comic book style. But the ability to re-use space finally gives Bendis’ dialogue has the physical word-space it needs to breathe, and the minimal change of art from panel-to-panel doesn’t feel as much the cheat here that it does on the printed page.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

It may not look like a lot here in still images, but through the “Infinite” format, with balloons transitioning in and out … it works! These are essentially the same kind of minimally-changing images that annoyed me in Bendis’ Daredevil, but only seeing one panel a time makes Bendis’ wall-of-words less intimidating, and the transitions help denote passage of time and make it easier to notice and enjoy story and dialogue beats. These are lightweight little stories — especially when compared with Bendis’ heavy Daredevil run — but they’re fun and they do show a promising evolution of the comic book form. The effect is much easier to judge by experiencing it for yourself, and the books are free at Comixology, so check them out.

In the end it comes down to personal preference, and I’m willing to admit my tastes are idiosyncratic. What do you think? Am I being too narrow with the way I define the best use of the comics form? Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #97 Top Ten Captain America Foes

The Next Billion Comic Book Readers

I had an interesting conversation on my Twitter feed with a kind soul from Comixology that I thought worth sharing:

Nice to know my digital comics rant and podcast are ringing through the hallowed halls of the vast digital comic book establishment!

Thanks for reading, listening, and commenting, Slim!

Legends of the (Digital) Dark Knight

Longbox Graveyard #61

Last week I exhumed my rant about digital comics and the state of the comic book marketplace. This week, Longbox Graveyard looks at DC Comics’ “born digital” Legends of the Dark Knight comic series. That’s right — Longbox Graveyard is reviewing a book from the present century. And it doesn’t even come on paper!

Despite my love for comics of the past, I help run an iPhone developer and I write this comics blog, so that kind of puts me in the bullseye for digital comics whether I like it or not. I’m enjoying Insufferable over at Mark Waid’s Thrillbent site, and even allowing for substantial interface issues, I remain a fan of Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited subscription service. I also recommend Operation Ajax for iPad as a “concept car” for the way technology and graphic story telling can come together.

I’d like to have a weekly comic book fix — I just don’t want to trek to a comic store and pay $3.99 an issue to get it. So my little bat ears perked up when I learned DC Comics was launching a new, out-of-continuity Batman series, to be published weekly in digital form, for .99 each. Weekly installments, low price point, a character I like, and digital delivery! OK, DC Comics, you got me back.

Now … can you keep me?


Reviewing Legends of the Dark Knight requires looking at the title from two different angles — technology and content. Let’s tackle the tech first.

Legends of the Dark Knight on iOS is delivered via DC Comics’ own app, which is a branded version of the Comixology store app (Marvel uses the same platform in their own branded app). The DC Comics app isn’t a store so much as a storefront — all billing and downloads are handled through Apple’s iTunes, which means all the app has to do is provide a clear and attractive marketplace for browsing and placing orders.

In this the app comes up a little short. Having learned about the series from DC’s blog I came to the DC Comics app eager for some digital Batman. I didn’t come to this series in the first week and so missed any special banners or promotion that might have run trumpeting this new series, and had to search the book up on my own.

Searching for “Batman” didn’t do me a lot of favors …

That’s a lot of Batman, and the priority of the search results didn’t help. I’m a new digital customer, looking for Batman — I would expect DC’s new, digital-only Batman series to receive priority in search results. Certainly it should appear before hits for series that concluded in 1995 or 2004. Seeing that I was viewing just a fraction of the 46 series on offer and the 986 issues available, I was ready to give up on the whole enterprise, but instead went outside the app to DC’s blog, confirmed the title of the series, returned to the app, and then found it by searching for “Legends of the Dark Knight.” This brought up the title I wanted, though I still had to distinguish between this new original series and the digital version of a legacy print title with a similar name that breathed its last in 2007.

This is asking a lot of customers — someone vaguely hearing of a new digital Batman book would certainly be thwarted coming to the store and trying to find Legends of the Dark Knight by browsing. Search is complicated, and it’s a bugaboo for the whole Apple ecosystem, but the DC Comics app earns poor grades in this aspect. A storefront that can’t quickly and efficiently connect a customer with their product is failing its most basic function.

With the technology navigated I encountered my next problem:

Wrtitten by Damon Lindelof?

Crap!

Having recently endured his instantly-forgetable Prometheus, seeing Lindelof’s name on the masthead did not inspire confidence. But the story proved better than I expected, though it was too reliant on a long, talking head sequence, and I didn’t buy the twist ending. The art was kind of sketchy but that’s down to taste rather than execution, and I know Jeff Lemire has his fans.

In all the first issue was a tightly-constructed and clever one-and-done story, and for all the ballyhoo of The New 52, as a lapsed Batman fan I found it a better jumping on point that the Batman Vol.1: Court of Owls graphic novel that I read last June. In fact I liked it well enough that I exclaimed so out loud, and my office partner, Chris Ulm, sitting just across the desk from me, overheard and we struck up a conversation about the book, and DC’s new digital initiative, and he was instantly eager to check it out.

Here I encountered another technology problem.

Short of my physically handing Ulm my iPad, there was no easy way for me to share Legends of the Dark Knight with him. There was a “Tap to Rate” option on the last page of the story, where I could give the tale between one and five stars, but no means of sharing this story via email or social networks. No Facebook or Twitter buttons, no “recommend to a friend” link, not even a URL that I could copy and paste and send to Chris. Nuthin’. As an evangelist who navigated the app’s search functionality to find the one book among thousands I actually wanted, I was provided zero help in sharing my enthusiasm with another likely customer.

As the kids say: FAIL!

At this point, though, I’ve paid the opportunity cost of hunting up the book, and getting it onto my iPad, and I liked it well enough. I was sold on the .99 price and weekly frequency, and so looked forward to sticking with the series, even if I wouldn’t be sharing it anywhere outside of Longbox Graveyard. The book wasn’t going to make me forget Frank Miller, and there weren’t a lot of bells and whistles in the way the technology was used to tell the story, but not everything has to be Operation Ajax. The lack of continuity with the rest of the DC line might be considered an inadequacy, but for me it is a benefit — and in fact at the first hint of a cross-over, reboot, or line-wide editorial mega-event, I’m gone, baby! No, I like Legends of the Dark Knight just fine the way it is — a bat-specific shaped-charge perfectly suited to penetrate my Armor of Jadedness and get me back into a weekly comic book habit.

Issue two was another entertaining one-and-done story, this time by Jonathan Larsen and J.G. Jones. This tale pit Batman against Amazo, a “sentient android possessing all of the (Justice) League’s superpowers.” A mismatch on paper, the story showed how Batman used brains and grit to defeat Amazo — and by proxy, prove himself superior to his superpowered Justice League colleagues.

Clever, groovy, well-told, and it didn’t overstay it’s welcome. I can already see that the reduced page count and single-issue focus of this series is forcing creators to produce crisp tales, with little of the decompressed, “write for the trade edition” pace that frequently reduces my enjoyment of modern comic books.

By the time the third issue rolls around, it’s fair to say I’m a fan. Legends of the Dark Knight has helped establish a little Thursday digital routine for me. Instead of spending my lunch hour with a Marvel digital moldy oldie, now I’m looking forward to a fresh new Batman episode on my iPad. Neat!

Except for one thing.

I do enough customer support for my own iOS firm to know that download errors rarely have anything to do with the app itself. They’re usually upstream at Apple. Still, it was disappointing to want some Batman on my lunch hour only to be thwarted by a vague download error message. An advantage of digital comics is that they should be available at any hour, instantly, and that they never sell out. We’re not there yet.

An hour or two later and my download was approved, and it was worth the wait. This third installment — by Tom Taylor and Nicola Scott — is a gimmick story, but it’s a good gimmick, as Batman (and Robin, yay!) do a little data mining to stop a crime before it happens.

I’ve always liked these street-level stories that try to get into the psychology of Gotham’s criminals, and in it’s tone this tale reminded me of the 1980s stories that Doug Moench used to tell so well. One jarring flaw was hearing Robin refer to “hiring” a car — we “rent” them over here in the States, but author Tom Taylor is an Aussie and can be forgiven that colliqualism (while we lay the body at the door of DC’s editorial).

Following these three single issue tales came two three-part tales. First up was “Crisis in Identity” by B. Clay Moore and Ben Templesmith, which has been my personal favorite arc of this young series. This was a lacanoic and darkly-humorous take on the Joker’s plot to unhinge Batman by hypnotizing select Gotham citizens into thinking they were Batman, then setting them loose to battle Killer Crock, with predictably fatal results.

Then came the three-part “Letters to Batman” by Steve Niles and Trevor Hairsine, which revolved around the tales exhumed from sacks of letters sent to Gotham City Hall by the city’s citizens, thanking Batman for his thankless service.

Author Steve Niles weaves his epistilary plot-lines together nicely and provides an unexpected judo-flip when one of the letters comes from an otherwise annonymous criminal opponent of Batman, but I found the final installment confusing — not understanding how Batman deduced where to find the bad guys from the letters he was reading — and I think this tale suffered a bit from also featuring the Joker, who maybe needed some time to cool down after having just been at the heart of the previous arc.

Calling these multi-issue stories “arcs” is a bit of a misnomer. Each installment of Legends of the Dark Knight clocks in at 22 pages … but those pages are formatted to fit the landscape orientation of an iPad, and so it might be more accurate to say that each issue is about eleven pages long, based on an equivalent print comic. That means a “three part” story runs around thirty print pages, which is longer than a single print comic, but still well short of a graphic novel or trade paperback. Actually this feels like a good length to let the story breathe a bit and permit creators to explore their idea while not being so long that the tale gets flabby or stale. The serial nature of weekly distribution also ensures each story hits a little climax every dozen “pages” or so.

On balance, Legends of the Dark Knight has been a bit better than I expected. I would likely hold a print book to a higher standard, but as an inexpensive and easy weekly Batman fix, this series pushes all the right buttons for me. Niggling technology issues aside, I expect I will keep my weekly lunch date with the Bat … so long as DC can resist rebooting or retconning the book! Kids these days may be all about the New 52 but I’m the Old 50 and I can only take so much change.

Enjoy Legends of the Dark Knight … and stay off my lawn, you rotten kids!

  • Title: Legends of the Dark Knight
  • Published By: DC Comics, 2012-present (ongoing) (Schedule through Fall 2012 HERE)
  • Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: #1-9, June-August 2012
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B-minus
  • Read Online: DC Comics Online

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #62 Six Degrees of Jack Kirby

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