Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Justice League #1

Okay, so there are no prizes for identifying that this picture is taken from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This classic rolling boulder scene has to be one of the most iconic scenes in any movie in the history of cinema. But what's it doing here in a post about the relaunched JLA?

I'll get to that.

First, let's add a little context. A few months ago, DC announced all its titles would be refashioned, repackaged and relaunched as 52 new titles, all numbered from Issue #1. Familiar characters would have their costumes redesigned (again) and, in some cases, their origins rebooted (again) but - for the most part - it would be the same old DCU made more accessible to new readers. And in both print and digital formats.

The first of the 52 new titles, the relaunched Justice League, went on sale today and the initial reaction online has been ... mixed. The consensus is that Jim Lee's art is outstanding, Geoff Johns's writing is fairly average and the story, overall, is underwhelming.

The principal area of contention has been that the story concerns itself with the initial meeting between Batman and Green Lantern. There is action, but it's not spectacular. There are other characters but they're relegated to minor supporting roles. There are signs that the seeds of a larger, more complex story are being sown, but the issue itself spends far too much time showing GL and Bats in conversation.

In short, the view seems to be that JLA #1 is a perfectly adequate (if unexceptional) first chapter in a slow-building story, adequate for existing JLA fans but completely lacking the dramatic, extravagant splash that's required to give new readers a taste of what the title will (hopefully) become.

The kind of splash which, you may remember, was delivered so successfully by Indy's now classic encounter with that rolling boulder.

Johns may be patiently laying the groundwork for several wonderful issues of this title but, unless your ambition is to appeal exclusively to an already established fan base (as with a long-running TV series) or selling the complete story in a single instalment (as with most novels or movies), then you need to open with something that also grabs the attention of your new target audience.

The opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark is a text book example of how that should be done. It's easy to forget now that Indy has become part of our collective cultural consciousness but, when Raiders first hit cinema screens, nobody knew who Indiana Jones was. Nobody knew that an Indy adventure was supposed to be about archaeology, arcane relics, Nazis, impossible stunts and edge-of-the-seat, heart-in-the-mouth thrills and spills. Sure, there would have to be a lengthy exposition sequence somewhere near the beginning of the film, but Spielberg appreciated that - even before that - there needed to be something to introduce the flavour of the movie. Something like a huge rolling boulder.

By the time that boulder had finished careering through the cave, the audience knew that Indy was an archaeologist with a bull whip, a battered fedora and a tendency to land himself in danger. In addition, they'd been given a taste of the adrenaline-fuelled, over-the-top action and humour that would come to characterise his adventures. And what's more, it had all been done without a single word of exposition.

Geoff Johns may have a great story lined up for the rest of his run on the new JLA title. But, having missed his chance in the first issue, it seems that - if he wants to share that story with anyone other than DC's existing fan base - then judging by the initial online reaction to JLA #1, he badly needs to introduce a rolling boulder. Soon.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 1

A Death in the Night

Death. Every time it's the same. Every time it's different. Tonight's would be just another.

The wrappings around her feet made no sound as she moved swifly across the tiled roofs of the decaying, mud-brick structures that passed for houses here in the Shanty District. Squat, ugly buildings that huddled together in fear. Fear of the open plazas of the Market District to the west with its shops and stalls, now deserted and skeletal but waiting to be dressed in extravagant banners and piled high with goods that only the Elite could afford. Fear of the gaudily painted mansions that rose up high into the hills to the south of the city. High enough to allow their inhabitants to feel both safe from and superior to those in the squalid districts below.

Image taken from free clipart siteInhabitants like the Grand Marshall. It was his mansion she would be visiting tonight. His death she would be delivering.

She felt a tile crack and loosen under her foot. Without missing a step, she continued to move effortlessly forward, seeming to glide across the tiles, ice grey in the moonlight. She heard the broken tile skitter down, across the roof; was aware of the second or so of silence as it fell; and noted the metallic clatter as it shattered against the cobbled street below.

No one would come. The residents of the Shanty District knew better than to brave the narrow streets at night. They'd cast a nervous eye towards the door, take some comfort from the fact it was bolted and barred, and look away. Probably a cat, they'd say. The City Guard never patrolled here either. The Shanty District was a dangerous place after dark, even for armed, trained militiamen. No, they'd focus their patrols in and around the Market District as they always did; partly because the open squares made an ambush unlikely, and not least because the Merchants' Guild made it worth their while to do so.

If there was anyone in the streets of the Shanty District they'd be conducting business of their own. The kind of business that can only be conducted in narrow, unlit streets after dark.

Behind her she could hear the faint cries of the last of the gulls still haunting the docks she'd left barely fifteen minutes earlier. Ahead of her she could see she had just three more terraces to go before the grey slate roofs of the Shanty District began to give way to the first modest mansions at the foot of the Hillside.

Without breaking her pace, she calculated the number of steps she needed to reach the end of the terrace, adjusted the length of her stride to ensure the last would take her to very edge of the last roof and, in one fluid, unbroken movement, launched herself off into the void between the houses. Stillness. The air that, just seconds before, had been rushing coolly past her face as she ran seemed to stop. She gave no thought to the drop below or to the hard stones that would smash her as surely as they'd smashed the tile if she'd mistimed her jump. For the briefest of moments she seemed simply, impossibly to hang, suspended in the air, unable to move. At peace.

Was this what death was? A stillness? A silence? She'd brought so many to their deaths but, after years in the service of the order, she was no closer to understanding its true nature.

And then, instinctively, her legs were moving again, cycling through the air, preparing themseves for the best possible landing; flexed, just enough to cushion the shock of her feet hitting the grey tiles of the next terrace; tensed, to allow her to spring forward, immediately continuing her sprint across the Shanty District rooftops. She felt the hard tiles once more under her bandaged feet, adjusted her balance to compensate for the slope of the roof, and was instantly on her toes, propelling herself forwards.

Grand Marshall Harlan would be alone, she knew, for less than an hour. She had to time her arrival precisely. Too soon and she'd never get past the mansion's security. Too late and she wouldn't have enough time to finish the job and escape before someone came to check on him. He was a sick man and never left unattended for very long.

Did he deserve to die? To most of the general population here in Tremayne, Harlan had been a hero, but there were many in the neighbouring island state of Brael who still considered him a war criminal. The war with Brael had ended more than thirty years ago, but the prominent role played by Harlan in the city's political life in the years since had ensured that diplomatic relations between the two islands had remained strained. There were undoubtedly many who would be gladdened by the news of his death.

As she reached the end of the terrace Sandrine put these thoughts from her mind. She had a contract. She'd see it fulfilled. She allowed her momentum to carry her off the roof of the final house in the terrace, rolled deftly as she hit the ground and came silently to a halt, pressing her back against the perimeter wall surrounding a tall house opposite.

Made of white stone and decorated with a dazzling array of multi-coloured glazed tiles, the house was modest by the standards of most that studded the Hillside. Her research had told her it belonged to a minor government functionary. From here the houses wound their way up the hill in an uneven, ragged line. The higher they climbed, the more expensive were the materials used in their construction. At the highest levels the walls and pillars were clad in white marble, and many of the decorative tiles were rumoured to contain precious stones and metals.

She would have to be careful now. Private security forces patrolled the streets in Hillside. Paid for by the wealthy residents, these forces were heavily armed and well-trained. Protected by their influential patrons, they were completely unfettered by the rules that constrained the activities of the City Guard. Avoiding their patrols wouldn't be easy. The steep slopes and private grounds that surrounded each property meant she'd be unable to use the roofs as she had in the Shanty District.

The Grand Marshall's residence was among the houses peppered around the top of the hill. She had a long climb ahead of her and limited time. She allowed herself to pause for breath, made the Sign of the Circle as she'd been taught as a child, and pulled herself up to the top of the wall. She knew the way. She'd prepared well. She always prepared well.

Noiselessly she dropped into the garden on the other side of the wall and was already running as her feet touched the grass, grey-black in the darkness. The government functionary's house was in the centre of the garden to her right. Lights had been lit inside the house but she would not be observed. Green wooden shutters had been locked shut across the doors and windows. A dim light seeped between the slats and cast uneven golden stripes across the lawn, marking her path. The ground rose up away from her as she ran.

On the far side of the garden was another wall. She computed its height, adjusted the length of her stride and hurled herself up at the wall. She reached out towards it, barely brushing the top with her finger tips, gaining just enough leverage to allow her to clear the top, and drop weightlessly to the other side. She did not stop. She was in a street now, paved with white stone bricks. The street wound its way up the hill and Sandrine followed it, crouching low.

The mansions of the Elite lined the way, each hiding behind a higher wall than the one before. She counted them off, one by one. She was getting closer. There was a narrow side street just up ahead. If her calculations were correct, and they always were, she would have just enough time to reach it and take cover before the next security patrol passed by.

It would be close. Already she could hear the boots of the patrol grating against the stone paving. Another forty-two seconds and they'd be upon her. She could see the side street coming closer. Thirty-six seconds. She ducked into the side street and picked up her pace. There was a wall on either side, and another directly ahead. A dead end. Her research told her the wall ahead was sixteen feet high. Too high to leap. Twenty-three seconds. Without breaking her stride she calmly reached into one of the small pouches that hung from the sash slung diagonally across her chest and took out a small ball. Green and red clouds swirled across its surface. Fourteen seconds. It would be very close!

She threw the ball at the foot of the wall. Two more strides and she'd be there. Her eyes hardly left the top of the wall, but she was aware of the ball shattering as it hit the ground, exploding into a dozen tiny shards and releasing a sudden swirling vortex of muddy brown gas. She leapt into the gas and felt the swirling currents lift her high into the air. The top of the wall passed beneath her and she dropped to the ground on the far side. Six seconds. She could hear the boots of the security patrol as it entered the side street. Her calculations had been a second out.

She paused. The sound of marching had stopped. Had the gas cleared? Had the patrol seen it? She remained still, crouching down on one knee. She didn't breathe.

Finally she heard the patrol return to its regular route, the boots once more grating against the stone floor. This time the sound was receding. Good. She had a contract to fulfill.

The Grand Marshall's mansion rose up in front of her. A white marble colonnade ran down one side. Above that, three windows opened onto a balcony topped with an ornate balustrade. The middle window, she knew, was Harlan's room. She padded across the lawn to the mansion, unwinding a rope from her waist. She stopped below the balcony and threw one end of the rope around one of the pillars. With one end of the rope in each hand, she braced her feet against the pillar and began to climb.

She hauled herself over the balustrade and crept cautiously towards the centre window. The curtains were closed but, between them, she could see Harlan lying on a large four-poster bed. A number of bottles stood on a table nearby, some full of strange liquids she didn't recognise, others half-full of pills of every colour. She opened the window just enough to slip in and conceal herself behind the curtain. Once she'd satisfied herself there were no medical staff in attendance, she walked towards the bed, her bound feet making no sound on the rich, carpeted floor.

"Grand Marshall?" she whispered.

With some effort Harlan opened his eyes. His skin was pale grey, almost colourless, and blue veins were clearly visible beneath the surface. His eyes were hollow, sunken deep into his heavily shadowed sockets. Only his moustache marked him out as the war hero he'd once been. Although now streaked with grey, it still grew full and it had clearly been recently groomed.

"What ..." the Grand Marshall struggled to speak. "What do you ... want?"

"I hear you're dying," said Sandrine. "I've come to help you on your way."

The Grand Marshall closed his eyes and took a few shallow breaths, the interval between each slightly longer than the one before. For a moment Sandrine thought perhaps he'd died without her assistance. But she waited. Eventually his eyes blinked half open again and rolled towards her.

"About ... about time," he rasped. "I was beginning to think ... you wouldn't make it."

(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

DC Comics Super Hero Collection - Batgirl

Barbara Gordon's Batgirl - accept no substitutes!I have mixed feelings about Batgirl. On the one hand she just doesn't "fit" into my adult view of what the Bat-universe should be. On the other hand, having grown up with the 1960s Batman TV series, the Barbara Gordon Batgirl will always be a part of it.

These days I'm fully subscribed to the idea of Batman as a lone vigilante, and very few of the many costumed assistants, sidekicks and allies he's acquired over the years really seem to fit into his world.

The succession of Robins, the various replacement Batgirls, Azrael, the shallow marketing gimmick that is Batwoman - none of them ring true, for me. None of them convince me that they really belong in Batman's Gotham.

There are exceptions. I love that Dick Grayson was allowed to grow into his own man as Nightwing. I love that Huntress is at once a mirror of Batman's own scarred psyche, and a reminder of the tightrope he walks between justice and revenge. And, most of all, I love that Barbara Gordon was able to reinvent herself as Oracle.

I first encountered Oracle in the opening chapters of the "mega-series" No Man's Land, taking charge of the GCPD as everyone else around her fell apart. I hadn't read A Killing Joke back then and so I had no idea how the Barbara Gordon who'd been the original Batgirl had come to be confined to a wheelchair, but her resolve and strength of character captivated me immediately.

It was entirely right that someone who had already had to overcome so much personal tragedy in her life should be the one person with the strength of will to force a sense of order onto the chaos of a Gotham destroyed by earthquake. The moment of emotion she allows herself in Batman: Cataclysm when Harvey Bullock finally declares he's going to look for her missing father James Gordon is one of the very few comic book moments that has stayed with me ever since that first time I read it.

But, however much I love Oracle, and however much I may tell myself that Barbara Gordon's perky, plucky and cheerful Batgirl is as out of place in Batman's world as, say, Stephanie Brown's ditzy Spoiler ... I like her! I'm sure it's partly down to nostalgia for the 1960s TV series, but it's not only that. I also think she was one of the best characters in the recent animated series The Batman (and far less irritating than Robin!) So, when I saw that Eaglemoss had added a Barbara Gordon Batgirl figurine to its DC Comics Super Hero Collection, I couldn't have been more pleased.

Yes, I know there are a lot of Cassie Cain and Steph Brown fans out there who won't be happy to see Babs reclaim the Bat-mantle when the latest DC reboot launches in September, but that's a discussion for another day. For now I'm just happy my collection of Bat-family figurines will finally have the Batgirl it's been missing. You know ... the real Batgirl!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Black Canary reboot: Damned if you do ...

Black Canary's new plumageYou know who this is? As far as I can tell it's the new costume for Black Canary, redesigned as part of the much vaunted DC reboot that launches next month.

I stumbled across this by accident a few days ago and thought: hey, if that is Black Canary, DC have done a pretty good job on this particular redesign. I won't pretend I'm a fan of Wonder Woman's new blue longjohns or Superman's jeans, but this one works.

Well, that's what I thought, but apparently I was wrong. I trawled the web today trying to find this particular image to post here. It took me a while and, when I did find it again, I must admit I was surprised to find it was in a forum in which disgruntled fans were nominating it as a contender for the worst of the new costumes in the rebooted DCU!

This really did take me aback. To me, it keeps everything that's iconic about Canary (well, insofar as anything can be "iconic" about a B-list character!) but updates it in a way that's far more ... now.

She still sports a flowing mane of blonde hair, of course; she still wears what appears to be black leather; her 1980s cropped biker jacket has gone but only to be replaced by a more modern jump-suit tunic (reminiscent of those worn by the X-Men in their recent movie incarnations); and, most importantly, she may now be wearing some kind of quilted or reinforced leggings instead of her trademark black fishnets, but the criss-cross patterning very elegantly manages to pay homage to her former leg-wear of choice. How could anyone object to that?

What every smart-dressed Canary is wearing in Smallville these days!I don't often feel sorry for Dan Didio and DC but, on this occasion, I really do feel they've fallen foul of Bart's Law: you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't!) After years of being regaled for keeping the character's outfit fetishistic, they've finally changed it only to find that they're just as much under fire as they ever were. No one cares that the new look is both modern and respectful to the character's traditional appearance. The only thing they care about is that it's changed. At all! Fandom, it seems, just isn't happy unless it's having a good moan!

Personally, I think we should all be grateful. This redesign could have been so much worse. Remember this laughably atrocious look they gave her when Black Canary appeared in Smallville? Part Formula 1 driver, part bondage model: now that was a redesign worth complaining about!