Thursday, July 31, 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the sequel to the classic The Dark Knight Returns, was written and drawn by Frank Miller and colored by Lynn Varley. It was originally published as a three-part series in 2001 and 2002.

The story picks up three years after the events of The Dark Knight Returns. The world has become a police-state led by Lex Luthor, and Batman is at work trying to free imprisoned superheroes and take down the corrupt government.

Strikes Again is thirty pages longer than Returns, and it feels much shorter. In Returns, every panel was carefully arranged. Here, panels are strewn about the page, and there are a lot of full-page spreads that are neither artistic nor helpful to the plot. Miller may have been trying to create a chaotic atmosphere for this one, but it all feels like filler.

On the subject of chaos, Strikes Again feels slapped together. There’s plenty going on, but there’s little development of any character other than Superman. Nothing that happens here is particularly exciting, and the ending is anticlimactic and ho-hum.

Miller’s art is significantly different here than it was in Returns. It’s more grotesque, it’s sloppier, and it’s less detailed. Many characters look like monsters. There’s a profound lack of background art, and this, combined with the lack of detail and the computer-colored backgrounds that Lynn Varley quite obviously got carried away with, makes it perfectly understandable if the reader has trouble figuring out what’s going on. About the only bright spot here is what Miller does with Plastic Man.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again feels sloppy and thrown together. It is mediocre in its own right, and looks even poorer when compared with the classic that spawned it.


Monday, July 28, 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley

With the release of the quite good but absurdly overrated The Dark Knight in theaters, this seems like a good time to revisit the greatest Batman comic ever written: The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Returns was written and drawn by Frank Miller, inked by Klaus Janson, and colored by Lynn Varley. It was originally published as a four-part series in 1986.

Here, Bruce Wayne is in his fifties, and he hasn’t been Batman in ten years. A massive crime wave drives him back into action. There’s a lot going on here: crime is out of control, Commissioner Gordon is retiring, superheroes have been done away with, the Cold War is escalating, several of the old, classic Batman villains are on the loose, and Batman’s not what he used to be.

The story here is so multi-layered, so complex, and Miller does an excellent job of keeping hold of all the threads. He also does a great job of blending old, classic characters with new ones. Miller’s one-page vignettes with crime victims make the story personal.

Miller likes to give us characters’ internal narration of events. This works most of the time, but once in a while it’s just too much (“I get sick of the arm…and kill it below the elbow.”). Miller typically does this when the artwork doesn’t show us all he wants it to, and he feels compelled to tell us the rest. This is the most obvious weakness in Miller’s work.

Miller’s art isn’t pretty. It’s dark, it’s sloppy at times, and it’s often downright ugly. But it fits the story, and it, along with Janson’s inks and Varley’s colors, really sets the mood. Even the layout of the panels, which are often cramped and crowded together, add to the story’s smothering feel.

There’s so much here, and Miller gives the reader a lot to think about. All told, The Dark Knight Returns has held up over time, and is one of the two or three greatest comic works ever created, hands down.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

BATMAN: DARK VICTORY by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Batman: Dark Victory, written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale, was originally published as a miniseries in 1999 and 2000. It is a sequel to Batman: The Long Halloween. It takes place early in Batman’s career, and focuses on a serial cop killer, the Hangman, who murders on holidays. Meanwhile Harvey Dent has escaped from Arkham and is waging war on Gotham’s organized crime families. This story also retells the origin of Robin.

Loeb, as usual, tells an engaging story. He does a good job balancing a fairly large cast of characters, although he waters down Batman’s rogues gallery by cramming virtually all of them into this story, then making them incredibly easy to defeat.

Sale’s art is stylized and exaggerated. There are often vast differences in the sizes of characters, and his sewers are like cathedrals. But overall, the art works.

There are a few grievous plot holes here. The Hangman is killing cops on holidays, and the cops know this, yet most every protagonist in the book has trouble keeping abreast of upcoming holidays. Batman knows that Harvey Dent and his minions are using the sewers to hide out and move around, yet he can never find them. Nor is he aware that the sewers conveniently lead right into the Batcave. The mind fairly boggles.

Overall, though, Batman: Dark Victory is interesting enough to overcome its flaws, and, while not as good as The Long Halloween, is entertaining enough. Read The Long Halloween first, as Dark Victory relies heavily on it.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

SUSHI: TASTE AND TECHNIQUE by Kimiko Barber and Hiroki Takemura

Sushi: Taste and Technique is Kimiko Barber's and Hiroki Takemura's guide to preparing, presenting and eating sushi. The book is thoroughly illustrated, and features photography by Ian O'Leary on nearly every page.

Sushi is thorough in every area. It gives a brief history of sushi, and information on the equipment and ingredients for sushi preparation. There are simple, easy-to-follow recipes on how to prepare sushi ingredients like omelets and soboro, and there is amazing coverage of the different fish, squid, octopi and oysters used for sushi, and how to cut and prepare each of them. The book also gives very detailed instructions on how to assemble scattered, stuffed, pressed, rolled, and hand-formed sushi. The book concludes with information on eating at a sushi bar, sushi etiquette, and other tidbits.

If you're looking for a book on sushi, it's hard to imagine one better than this.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

SUSHI MADE EASY by Kumfoo Wong

Sushi Made Easy, by Kumfoo Wong, is an introductory guide to preparing and presenting sushi. The book is targeted to beginners, and at only 80 pages, is completely manageable.

Sushi Made Easy provides an introduction to the more prominent sushi ingredients and kitchen utensils and equipment needed, as well as advice on how to select suitable fish to be used raw. There is a great deal of emphasis here on appearance and presentation. Sushi Made Easy covers nigiri-sushi, sushi rolls, hand rolls, rolled sweet omelet, and soups. The book is fully illustrated, and features step-by-step instructions for making each recipe.

Sushi Made Easy is an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to make sushi at home. It is also available through Amazon as part of sushi starter kits that include utensils and equipment.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

Batman: Arkham Asylum, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean, was originally published in 1989. The fifteenth anniversary edition also contains Morrison’s original script and storyboards. The inmates of Arkham Asylum have taken over the institution, and will only release their hostages if Batman comes inside. Batman deals with his own sanity as he confronts the usual crowd of villains.

Dave McKean’s art is dark and atmospheric, and it fits the book perfectly. However, it’s often so dark that it’s difficult to tell what’s going on, and a look at Morrison’s script shows that the art doesn’t incorporate half the imagery Morrison was going for (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

Morrison goes for image overload here. Christian, pagan, and mystic imagery are through the roof. Morrison throws all of it into the pot with the pretentious treatments of Freud, Jung, and psychology in general, and what we get just isn’t very good. There are other problems. Batman seems poorly characterized here, particularly at the beginning. He’s chatty, out of control of his emotions, and publicly vulnerable.

The jacket to Arkham Asylum trumpets that it is “the most successful graphic novel of all time.” I can’t imagine why. Ultimately, Arkham Asylum just isn’t compelling.