THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN

(Jill Lepore; 410 pages; ALFRED A KNOPF PUBLISHING/RANDOM HOUSE BOOKS; 2014)

secret history of wnder woman cover

If you’re going into THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN expecting a major discourse on some secret comic book origin story of the Amazon princess, you are definitely looking in the wrong direction. The book is more of an historical look back at the suffrage and feminist movements of the late nineteenth and the first eight decades of the twentieth centuries. It also works as, quite possibly, the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, who was – to say the least – a deeply flawed individual. Many of Marston’s flaws and foibles were at the core of the character’s creation and writer Jill Lepore’s examination of his early scripts and notes highlights his attempts to forward his fervent feminist beliefs through a series of failed teaching positions and “scientific” experiments that were – and, I’m being generous here – borderline, at best.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

Almost from birth, William Moulton Marston surrounded himself with strong, independent thinking women; he had to… he was far too lazy to have any job other than the odd “professorship” that allowed him to practice his borderline kinky experiments virtually unmolested. His aunt, his female students and lab assistants and his wives carried the financial burdens of the classroom, laboratory and household. A student aide and paramour (Olive Byrne, niece of famed feminist and trail-blazing birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger) was brought into the home as nanny to his two young sons; when she became pregnant, Marston made her wife number two, telling the two Missus Marstons that the third (and eventually fourth) child would continue under the tutelage and care of number two, while the more successful number one would be called “Mother” to all four and continue to bring in the household funds. The fact that these women didn’t kill him (or each other) must be proof that females are, indeed, the superior sex… cuz I woulda beat the guy like a baby seal.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

But, anyway, the great character of the women in his life DID give Marston the template for the first female super-hero; the fact that he was able to snow the editors and publisher of DC Comics with the concept that Wonder Woman’s strength was best exhibited by her continually being bound in some form or other (almost always by the male of the species, with chains being the favorite mode of bondage, though the Amazon was also harnessed into a straightjacket, locked in an electrified cage and hogtied with a rope) speaks volumes to the man’s mastery at the art of humbuggery. When the thought police came a-calling, he would be sure to have all of his Amazons in a row, usually in the form of one of his smitten female colleagues or some borderline-legitimate psychologist who moved in the same semi-reputable circles as Marston, ready with their own convoluted explanations of how depicting such scenes of bondage would, ultimately, empower women to become the family, political and social leaders that is their destiny; disputes and wars would cease, leading to a Utopian society with peace and love and dancing.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

The guy musta been doing something right, however, as Wonder Woman became wildly popular. And, not just among the young boys who were the vast majority of comic book readers at that time; Princess Diana had found a new audience as young girls all across America began reading her adventures and emulating her amazing feats in their backyards and living rooms. When two members of the Justice Society of America, the Flash and Green Lantern, were awarded their own books, the editors of ALL STAR COMICS conducted a readers poll to which hero should take their place within the ranks. Wonder Woman was far and away the victor. However, Marston wasn’t writing the adventures of the JSA, so the Amazon was made official secretary of the team, in charge of holding down the fort while the men were off fighting evil and in charge of coffee and snacks during meetings. These tales were, by and large, written by legendary comic scribe, Gardner F Fox, though it has long been rumored that Robert Kanigher may have ghosted several of those JSA adventures. That would actually make some kind of since, as Kanigher hated not only Marston, but his creation, as well. This visceral dislike of the character led to the eventual dumbing down of the Wonder Woman strip, as Kanigher was named as Marston’s replacement upon the latter’s death in 1947, a post he held for more than 22 years; suddenly, Diana Prince’s alter ego became a besotted and lovelorn member of the weaker sex, falling prey to ridiculous scheme after ridiculous scheme as she pined away for her boss in Military Intelligence, Captain (eventually Colonel) Steve Trevor. Trevor ended up saving the Amazonian warrior as often – or more often – as she saved him.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

As the turbulent sixties were coming to an enlightened end, Kanigher finally relinquished his hold on Wonder Woman in 1968 and Diana relinquished her powers to become a mortal woman, working as a secret agent to clear Steve Trevor of a bogus murder charge. The death knell for this “liberated” Wonder Woman came with the December 1972 issue, a “special Women’s Lib issue.” Denny O’Neil was gone, too, replaced by… Robert Kanigher, back for another (short-lived) round. The damage to the venerable character had been done during Kanigher’s first monumental run and, seemingly, month after month, the poor scripts and ill-conceived attempts at relevancy piled degradation upon degradation on the Amazon princess, even as a new publication from the National Women’s Political Caucus called MS featured her on the cover of their debut issue in 1972 (which may have prompted the return of the original Wonder Woman costume and powers a few months later). Wonder Woman remains a stalwart of DC Comics, considered to be an integral part of “the Trinity,” with Superman and Batman. A couple of generations of new creative teams have removed the layers of tarnish to return the character to something much closer to the character William Moulton Marston originally envisioned nearly 75 years ago. Lepore has delved deep and dissected every aspect, every historical event that has gone into the creation of the first female super-hero; likewise, she points to the many ways that Wonder Woman – and, by extension, Marston – has molded the history of the women’s movement since she first burst onto the scene in 1941. You don’t have to be comic book fan to enjoy THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN, nor do you have to be a woman or a feminist to appreciate the history and politics that led to Wonder Woman’s creation and longevity; the book is just a good, thought-provoking read.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

It should be noted that since the book’s publication, several descendents of the Marstons have come forward to dispute many of the assertions that Ms Lepore puts forth regarding the family and their lifestyle; for what it’s worth, much of this information has been floating around for quite awhile and I tend to support the Lepore’s version of events. I’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds.


THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER, NUMBER 4

(Jamie S Rich/George Kambadais; 17 pages, digital; MONKEYBRAIN COMICS, 2014)

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4

Artist George Kambadais had an idea; he contacted writer Jamie S Rich with details of his idea. A young woman named Lindy Tuner has been murdered, in her superhero garb, as the Cat. Lindy’s spirit visits her younger sister Miranda, who, after digesting the fact that her sister was a superhero and… a dead one, at that, decided to pick up the mantle, hoping to give her sister justice. Rich was intrigued and, a few months later, the first issue of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER was published by digital comics pioneers, Monkeybrain Comics.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 3 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 3 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

Actually, now four issues into the series, this “origin” story takes center stage, as Miranda, with help from Lindy, closes in on the killer. To catch you up, the first issue was kind of a meet and greet, as we’re introduced to novice costumed hero Miranda, in mid-battle with a couple of super-baddies, part of a group known as the Blockheads. The Cat is up to her ears in toy building blocks (sorta like Legos) but, refusing her ghostly sibling’s aid, she works her way out of the problem. Unfortunately, she loses the bad guys along the way. The second and third issues, a two-parter called “If You Have Ghosts,” lays the official groundwork for this issue. These stories are fast-paced, exciting and a really fun read, written to appeal to everyone, aged twelve and up… especially girls. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter or merely Kambadais’ stylistic art but, I find myself making comparisons to the old Hanna-Barbara Saturday morning cartoon, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS; it’s sort of an odd style that evokes the work of the great comics and cartoon artist, Alex Toth (who designed characters and backgrounds for most H-B shows in the ’60s, including JOSIE… ), and the artistic team responsible for the amazing look of another animated series, SAMURAI JACK.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 4 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 4 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

Kambadais is a master of odd angles and perspectives, as well as an overall intriguing page design; he, like Toth, does so very much with so few lines, allowing his color art (or, as on the “If You Have Ghosts” issues, the excellent color designs of Paulina Ganucheau) to do much of the heavy work. Rich, for the most part, never over-scripts; he seemingly manages to cram two or three pages of exposition into a panel or two… sometimes, in a line or two. To be sure, the premise of …MIRANDA TURNER isn’t a new one. Ghosts, spirits and mysticism of some sort have been a part of comics pretty much since that very first issue of ACTION COMICS (you know the one… the one that starred Zatara, Master Magician and that guy in the red cape and drawers): Deadman, the Spectre, Ghost Rider, Solomon Grundy and – DUH! – the Spirit, among about a jillion others. The difference here is the kitschy slumber party feel of the sisters’ relationship, a sibling rivalry that runs deep, even in death… until someone else starts messing with one or the other. Miranda is determined to find Lindy’s killer while forging her own path as the Cat; Lindy is determined to keep Miranda safe while helping her find the answer to her own murder. I must say that, so far, the experience has been a very pleasant surprise, especially for a guy who’s been reading comics since the early 1960s.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 5 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 5 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

If there’s a pre- or early teen girl in your circle of influence, particularly those interested in Manga or Anime, you could certainly do worse than introducing them to THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER. My only complaint is that, in the nearly two years since the debut issue, there have (obviously) only been three more issues published and… well, that twist ending at the end of this issue has me looking for the next installment, like, NOW! All four issues of this great series, as well as the entire Monkeybrain digital library, are available for purchase (99¢ each) at comixology.com; you can check out previews of this and other books at monkeybraincomics.com. There are plenty of titles suitable for every age group. Monkeybrain is the perfect introduction to comics for kids of all ages.


SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, VOLUMES 1-3

(DC COMICS CLASSIC COLLECTIONS/WARNER HOME VIDEO; 2005-2006; Original Television Series, 1996-2000)

Superman TAS

With MAN OF STEEL an unqualified hit, I thought it was time to examine one of my favorite non-comic book versions of the Last Son of Krypton. The three volume DVD collection of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES is once again gracing the shelves of your local box store and readily available for a sweet lower price (there also exists a SUPERMAN – THE COMPLETE ANIMATED SERIES, which is exactly what it sounds like. It just isn’t available at the box Mart in my neighborhood). So, we concern ourselves with the three separate volumes: all 54 episodes of the now-classic cartoon are here, as well as plenty of bonus extras that delve into the characters and the creators.

For the 3 volumes of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, rather than giving us a more traditional season-by-season release, Volume 1 offers the first season and the first five episodes of Season 2 (which is 28 episodes, more than double the Season 1 total). The second volume features the next 18 episodes of Season 2, while Volume 3 features the final five episodes (including two 2-part arcs), all 10 Season 3 episodes and the last 3 episodes, which make up the entirety of the fourth and final season. Why only three episodes in that last season? Well, producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had intended a full season story arc initiated with the two-parter “Legacy.” The WB network (which aired this series, the BATMAN animated show, as well as the BATMAN BEYOND series), however, wanted the team to focus their creative energies on the newer BATMAN BEYOND. Interestingly enough, BATMAN BEYOND was also put on hold two years later to allow Timm and Dini to work on the new JUSTICE LEAGUE series, allowing everything to come full circle, as that series utilized elements and plot threads from all previous DC animated universe shows (including STATIC SHOCK). But, for now… let’s go back to the beginning.

Clark Kent changes to Superman (publicity still)

Clark Kent changes to Superman (publicity still)

Debuting in September, 1996, this new, animated SUPERMAN took its cues from BATMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, with a very stylized approach to the artwork and with stories that stuck very close to the source materials. That made comic book geeks extremely happy! The production team, headed up by Bruce Timm, gave us fairly traditional takes on Martha, Jonathan and Clark Kent, Jor-El and Lara, Lois Lane, Perry White and the major villains (Brainiac, Metallo and – of course – Lex Luthor). There’s also an updated, hipper Jimmy Olsen, as well as retro-versions of a few second-tier baddies like the fifth-dimensional imp, Mister Mxyzptlk and the Toyman. Throw in the nearly forgotten Jim Shooter/Al Plastino creation, Parasite, add a healthy contingent from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (New Gods, Darkseid, Granny Goodness) and some new blood, in the form of Livewire, and you’ve got a party. Heck, even Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Arthur Curry, the Flash, the Joker and Harley Quinn show up in various episodes.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent meet with Daily Planet editor, Perry White (publicity still)

Lois Lane and Clark Kent meet with Daily Planet editor, Perry White (publicity still)

As with the BATMAN series, this show works on a myriad of levels, one of the most important being the use of great actors. From the lead characters (Tim Daly as Superman/Clark Kent, Dana Delaney as Lois Lane) to secondary characters like the Kents (Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares) and the wickedly evil Granny Goodness (played to the hilt by – are you ready for this? – Ed Asner!), the cast of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES reads like a producer’s rolo-dex of some of the most recognizable and well-loved voices in Hollywood. In fact, most of the actors are so spot on that they were asked along for the ride when Timm and company launched JUSTICE LEAGUE (and its later incarnation, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED). I believe the only actor who would have had overlapping roles in both this and the JL/JLU series not to appear in the latter show would be Supes himself, Tim Daly, who was already under contract to star in another (live action) series. That these talented individuals made themselves available to reprise their roles (often quite small, especially in the JUSTICE LEAGUE shows) speaks volumes about production standards and the top-notch, knowledgeable writing staff.

Every good super-hero story should start with an awesome origin story and, Superman’s is the one that every creative team since 1938 have been using as a template, to varying degrees of success. As it should, this series begins with an awesome three part story called “The Last Son of Krypton,” which is heavy on the Kryptonian lead up to Kal-El’s arrival on Earth, offering new insights into the societal hierarchy of the doomed planet, as well as an intimate look at the lives of Superman’s birth parents, Lara and Jor-El. A major divergence with the comics is the revelation that the evil mind-construct Brainiac started out as the “brains” behind Kryptonian science, culture and politics. The seemingly benevolent computer is seen as the dispassionate destroyer of the planet, preferring to collect all pertinent information on the planet and its inhabitants rather than offering a solution to its ultimate demise. In short, the ultra-rational Brainiac puts knowledge (and his own survival, as the conservator of the history and knowledge of Krypton) above life. While the comic book version went through various incarnations and minor adjustments in his origin since his debut 45 years ago, this version just seems right. I am rather surprised that DC didn’t adopt this storyline when they deconstructed their entire universe with the New 52 (of which, the less said here, the better). I mean, there is precedent: Harley Quinn, arguably one of DC’s most popular villains, made her first appearance in the BATMAN animated show. A later episode of SUPERMAN introduced Livewire, who went on to appear in various DC titles, as both villain and reformed hero.

Other stellar episodes from that first season (a total of 13 episodes, airing during1996-1997) include “Feeding Time,” which introduces Parasite, a little used character from the comics, turning him into a force to be reckoned with in the Superman animated universe; a two-part story called “The Main Man,” guest-starring – DUH! – Lobo, the loud-mouthed galactic bounty hunter; and “Tools of the Trade,” in which recurring gangster boss Bruno Mannheim signs a deal with the devil… Jack Kirby’s ultimate DC creation, the evil megalomaniac Darkseid (deliciously voiced by Michael Ironside), who from this point forward is the focal point of the series as Superman’s main nemesis. Darkseid casts a huge shadow over the DC animated universe, as the ultimate climax of the massive storyline isn’t realized until much later, in the final episode of the JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED series.

Livewire (publicity still)

Livewire (publicity still)

Standouts from Season 2 (probably THE standout season of the entire series) include “The Prometheon,” in which a giant alien android is unwittingly loosed by Superman, to wreak havoc, Godzilla-style on high-tension wires and nuclear generators across the world. The Flash shows up in “Speed Demons,” featuring a plot right out of the comics, with Supes and Wally racing around the planet for charity. When the Weather Wizard decides to hold the climate hostage to get a little respect, hilarity and a tag-team beatdown ensues. The aforementioned “Livewire” is born when a shock jock with a mad on for the Man of Steel is hit by lightning before Superman can save her. Obviously, the fact that he showed up late to the electrocution meant that Kal was to blame and Livewire would become a constant thorn in his side throughout the series (and beyond, in the final season of JLU). Two recurring characters from the comics debuted in this second season: Bizarro (a failed attempt by Lex Luthor and others to clone Superman) and Mister Mxyzptlk, the latter splendidly voiced by the abrasive comedian, Gilbert Gottfried. Often used in the comic books as a comedic foil for Superman, Bizarro’s appearances here are more poignant than funny, as he – like Kal-El before him – seeks his place in a world (and universe) that mocks and shuns him.

As you can see, guest-stars and old school villains abound in this season, including the Dark Knight and his most crazed protagonists, the Joker and Harley Quinn, who all show up in a three-part episode called – what else? – “World’s Finest.” Doctor Fate is called upon for mystical assistance in “The Hand of Fate.” John Henry Irons becomes the hero Steel in “Prototype” and returns in “Heavy Metal” to help Superman against Metallo. The final four episodes prominently feature Jack Kirby’s Fourth World creations, including Granny Goodness and Darkseid. The last two episodes are called “Little Girl Lost” and serve as an introduction to Kal’s cousin Kara, better known as Supergirl, as she and Jimmy Olsen infiltrate a teen gang who are actually being controlled by Darkseid’s evil minion, Granny Goodness.

Darkseid (publicity still)

Darkseid (publicity still)

The most stunning piece of writing and animation comes with episodes 25 and 26, a two-parter called “Apokolips.” With Superman beaten and captured by Darkseid and his armies, the people of Metropolis, led by Detective Dan Turpin (whose character and appearance are based on Jack Kirby himself), rise up and refuse to surrender. As Turpin turns the weapons of Apokolips on Darkseid and uses one to free Superman, Darkseid uses his powers to make an example out of the policeman, vaporizing him with his gaze. Now free, the Man of Steel begins crushing both weapons and parademons alike, forcing Darkseid to retreat, vowing vengeance. The final funeral scenes are some of the best television moments ever. Yeah… I just said that!

Superman consoles his damaged clone, Bizarro (publicity still)

Superman consoles his damaged clone, Bizarro (publicity still)

Season 3 is not as dramatic as the previous… how could it be? There are, however, a couple of episodes that are – if nothing else – pure and simple super-hero/comic book fun. Robin (the Tim Drake version) appears in “Knight Time,” covering for a certain Darknight Detective. Once Clark Kent realizes that the Batman has gone missing, he swoops in to lend a hand, much to the chagrin of the Dynamic Duo’s junior partner. The Legion of Super-Heroes show up in “New Kids In Town,” Kyle Raynor makes a rare DCAU appearance as Green Lantern in “In Brightest Day” and Aquaman is captured by Luthor in “A Fish Story.” “Little Big Head Man” finds the fifth dimension imp, Mxyzptlk, tricking a contented Bizarro into returning to Earth to confound Superman with a double whammy of lunacy.

Superman battles one of Batman’s most dangerous foes, as Ra’s Al Ghul brings his Society of Shadows to Metropolis in “The Demon Reborn,” the first episode of the unfortunately aborted fourth season. Darkseid returns for the series two-part finale, “Lagacy.” The Lord of Apokolips brainwashes Kal-El into believing that he was raised on Apokolips as Darkseid’s son. With Superman reappearing on Earth after a long absence, the citizens of Metropolis are appalled at his destructive actions. By the time he regains control of his own mind, the populace of his adoptive planet are in total fear of the Man of Steel and, as a result, have turned against him. Had the series not ended, this story would have arced across the season, as Superman worked to regain the trust of the people of Earth. Thankfully, this thread is picked up later in JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED.

Superman confronts his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (publicity still)

Superman confronts his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (publicity still)

There is so much neat stuff going on in this series (and, in fact, all of the other DCAU series) that any comic book geek should find and watch it in any form available (DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix, whatever). If you find the DVD/Blu-Ray collections (either the three separate volumes or the complete series), buy them, if for no other reason than to have the cool bonus features, including creators’ commentary on several key episodes, lending insight into the series and the characters. It is well worth the investment, especially at these new, cheaper prices.


ROY THOMAS PRESENTS CLASSIC PHANTOM LADY, VOLUME 1

(Roy Thomas, foreword/Joe Kubert, Matt Baker and others; 301 pages; PS ARTBOOKS/PS PUBLISHING, 2013)

Phantom Lady

Most of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s may remember Phantom Lady from the DC comic series JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (DC acquired the Lady and many such properties from Fawcett, Quality and many other minor publishing houses- including the Captain Marvel Family from Fawcett, and Plastic Man and Phantom Lady from Quality). In a story featuring the Justice Society of America, the two teams travel to Earth X, where the Nazis won World War II and several Quality heroes have banded together, calling themselves the Freedom Fighters. Now, thanks to comics legend and historian Roy Thomas, what we have here is the first stories to feature Phantom Lady, including her entire run in Quality’s POLICE COMICS, starting with the August 1941 debut issue and ending with #23, dated October, 1943. There are also three cross-over stories (quite rare for the time) from FEATURE COMICS and starring the Spider Widow and the Raven. After POLICE COMICS #23, Phantom Lady just disappeared. She was revived by Fox Features in her own title, cover dated August, 1947, with numbering starting at #13 (taking over numbering from WOTALIFE COMICS). The first five issues of the revival are here, as well. That, my friends, may seem like a WHOLE lot of comics. And it is… just not a particularly large page count. Most of the Quality stories are only six pages long (a few are five), which is certainly problematic from a story-telling standpoint. But, more of that later.

Spoiled society debutante Sandra Knight, as Phantom Lady, works the spy and military espionage cases in Washington, DC, where her father, Senator Henry Knight, seems to be very much involved in whatever particular Senate Sub-Committee that has anything – no matter how remote – to do with the Lady’s current case. Phantom Lady’s mysterious work is, amazingly, accomplished in a skimpy swimsuit (that would have gotten her arrested in most towns and cities back then), a bright green cape, and… with very few exceptions, no mask! The latter had to be a real pain because a majority of her early stories involved her saving either her father or her boyfriend, Don Borden (of the State Department, no less), or – more often than not – both of them, from some unusually inept fifth column threat or scheme. I mean, even Superman’s alter ego wears glasses and a different hair style. Sandra’s answers to the usual coming and going questions (“Where are you going at a time like this?” and “Where were you? Phantom Lady saved us all!”), likewise, would have made even Clark Kent cringe (“Oh… I forgot I was out of lipstick and had to buy some before someone saw me without any.” or “I thought I heard the cat meowing for a saucer of milk, so I went to berate the staff for not taking care of such problems before they came up.” Okay, so those two are mine, but the excuses actually used in the stories are equally lame.). Sandra’s feigned self-absorption certainly did take the art form to new levels of narcissism… much like the very real spoiled pop tarts and tabloid princesses of today.

With only six pages of story, the writers (whose names are lost to the pages of time, by the way) were really hampered. As the strip was action-oriented, the basic premise of the plot had to be delivered in the first several panels; someone had to be kidnapped or threatened in the first two pages; the Phantom Lady had to find the bad guys’ hideout and come close to being permanently eliminated before bringing out her weapon of choice (a black light which caused her enemies to be blinded if they fell within its range) to wrap up the crooks before the bottom of page five; the cops had to be notified and Sandra Knight had to make her reappearance – usually uttering some snarky remark – before the end of the story. Formulaic? Sure, but – as they say – those were simpler times and the writers were basically writing these things for kids. They did try to imbue the scripts with a touch of humor… usually unsuccessfully. In fact, the only time that the humor really worked well was during the cross-over stories featuring the Raven and Spider Widow. These stories also worked because there was a common plot device running through the five stories (two in POLICE COMICS, three in FEATURE COMICS): Competition. The two heroines were chagrined that the other claimed to be the most popular female hero in comics, fighting each other as much as the villain of the piece. Of course, stuck in the middle was Spider Widow’s partner, the Raven.

Things were allowed to progress at a slower – if not more natural – pace with the Fox Features stories. The Lady was featured in stories that ran from seven pages (I know… not much of an improvement, but… ) to eleven or 12 pages, with two (and, in issue #14, three) stories per issue. Though these stories were no less formulaic, they were better fleshed out than the Quality stories. They also featured a more common class of criminals, as well, as Phantom Lady became more involved in diamond robberies and the like. She even confronted zombies in “An Army of Walking Dead” in issue #15 and a werewolf in a story called “The Monster In the Pool,” from issue #16.

POLICE COMICS #15 "The School For Spies" page 3 (art by JOE KUBERT)

POLICE COMICS #15 “The School For Spies” page 3 (art by JOE KUBERT)

The real story here is the artwork. That pun, by the way, was fully intended. The first 13 stories were drawn by Arthur F Peddy. Peddy’s style, at first, reminded me of Charles Moulton’s early Wonder Woman stories. As the series progressed, he became more comfortable with the female form and Phantom Lady’s appearance and movements took on a more natural look. The real find from the Quality era begins with “The West Point Incident,” from POLICE COMICS #14. That story and the next two were illustrated by a very young Joe Kubert. Looking at these 18 formative pages, we see only a slight glimmer of the style that Kubert would perfect in the ’50s and ’60s at DC. Instead, we have a very Eisner-esque style that works very well with the super-hero strip. Two of the Kubert stories feature an odd, though somehow appealing veil-like mask on our heroine. Starting with POLICE COMICS #17, Frank Borth takes over and it seems that the Lady finally has the perfect artist. There is some conjecture that Borth may have also written these tales, as they are credited as “A Frank M Borth Feature.” The three Spider Widow stories are credited the same and he is also listed in the contents pages of this collection as being the writer of those scripts. Borth, like Kubert, tries a mask – a simple black mask that covers the eyes (think Robin or Zorro) – for the Lady. It lasts for one story and is retired. The art on the final two POLICE COMICS stories are credited to Rudy Palais (the contents has a question mark beside his name for issue 22, the story from issue 23 is signed). Again, Palais seems to be a step up (although only slightly) from the previous artist.

PHANTOM LADY #13 "Knights of the Crooked Cross" splash page (art by MATT BAKER)

PHANTOM LADY #13 “Knights of the Crooked Cross” splash page (art by MATT BAKER)

The first Fox Features stories brought more changes than just the page count. Gone were the yellow swimsuit and green cape, replaced by a more appealing blue suit (and blue shorts) and a red cape. Sandra Knight/Phantom Lady was also now more voluptuous than her Quality artists drew her. Fox was cashing in on what has come to be known as “Good Girl” art, a style that many critics of the day considered borderline pornographic. These artistic changes were provided by Matt Baker, a young man who obviously knew his way around the female of the species. His was a style that would be very much in demand at the major comics houses today, very clean and detailed. These five issues alone would be worth the price of this collection. The Fox Features stories were credited to “Gregory Page,” a pseudonym used throughout the Fox line. Mister Thomas, comics scholar that he is, believes that these scripts were actually written by Ruth Roche. Me… I just read ‘em, so I bow to his superior knowledge. Roy promises more Baker and Roche in Volume 2 of this collection. I can’t wait!


BATMAN – THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION

(SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT/COLUMBIA PICTURES; 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

BATMAN 1943 cover

The 1943 Columbia Serial Release of BATMAN is given the DVD treatment in celebration of the DVD release of the highly successful Christopher Nolan reboot, BATMAN BEGINS. Actually, it’s more like a monetary feeding frenzy, with every company with anything even remotely related to Batman throwing it against the commercial wall to see what sticks. Thus, the tag-line for this two-disc set is, “See how Batman really began.” Which, I suppose, is an accurate assertion if you’re speaking about filmed versions. While the character debuted in DETECTIVE COMICS in 1939, this cheaply made serial was the first film to feature the Batman and his young protoge, Robin.

Lewis Wilson as Batman (publicity still)

Lewis Wilson as Batman (publicity still)

Cheaply made,” did you say? So, we should probably avoid it like the plague, right? Nope… not at all! Cheap doesn’t always mean bad. In the case of BATMAN, while there are some dubious directorial decisions and some cringe-worthy dialogue that definitely wouldn’t pass any kind of censor in this day and age, overall it is a fun ride and a look back at a movie Batman that’s more in line with what creator Bob Kane had envisioned in his early comic book appearances. If you’re far too politically correct to take it as a piece with some historical significance, realizing that it is very much of a different time, you may want to give BATMAN a pass. If you look at it as a period piece, the racial references may not sting as much… doesn’t make ‘em any more right then than it does now, but it was quite a different world 60 years ago. The most blatantly egregious comment comes from the narrator beginning at about the halfway mark of Episode 1: “This was part of a foreign land transplanted bodily to America and known as ‘Little Tokyo.’ Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street… “ There is so much wrong with those lines but, again, we have to remember that Japan was one of the Axis powers that the United States and its allies were fighting then. The “rounding up” that is referred to is our government’s solution to the hysteria that gripped most of the country: They forced approximately 110,000 American citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent (mostly on the West Coast) into “War Relocation Camps,” as possible saboteurs or enemy combatants. Anyway… history lesson over. We all understand how bad this stuff was.

Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson as Robin and Batman (publicity still)

Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson as Robin and Batman (publicity still)

Aside from the obvious “rah-rah, we’re the good guys” war mentality, the 15-part BATMAN serial did feature some cool sci-fi elements, some over-the-top action sequences and the first appearance anywhere of the Batcave (herein called the “Bat’s Cave”). Batman is working for the government as a secret agent while, as Bruce Wayne, he affects the lazy, disinterested attitude of the filthy rich. Lewis Wilson looks the part, rather it be Bruce or alter ego, Batman. The costume is pretty good, even if the cape and cowl are a bit problematic, particularly in the fight scenes. Likewise, 17-year old Douglas Croft is solid as Wayne’s ward, Dick Grayson, and his masked crime-fighting persona, Robin. The two work off each other quite well, the odd changing in and out of costume together in the back seat of a car aside. Shirley Patterson, her high hair and big hats play Bruce’s love interest, Linda Page. She’s pretty hot except for the fact that she’s something like 85 years old and has been dead for 10 years. But, I digress, as is my wont regarding such things.

Gus Gillmore (in helmet) and J Carroll Naish as Doctor Daka (publicity still)

Gus Gillmore (in helmet) and J Carroll Naish as Doctor Daka (publicity still)

J Carroll Naish, as the evil Doctor (or Prince, depending on the episode) Daka, is as inscrutable as most “occidentals” seem to think all Asian master criminals or detectives are. Of course, you couldn’t use a real-live Japanese actor for the role, seeing as how they couldn’t be trusted. Before I start getting hate mail from the humorless politically correct among you, that was sarcasm! Anyway, the one remaining business in “Little Tokyo” is a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” which purports to show scenes of Japanese atrocities heaped upon the world and their own people. It’s really a front for the good… uh… the not-so-good doctor’s spy organization, his “League of the New Order.” This League is populated by a bunch of felons and wrongly accused parolees (’cause they’re mad at the justice system for putting them in prison, naturally) to undermine several key US industries. If the innocent (or a patriotic crook) refuses to join the cause, Daka turns them into electronically controlled living zombies (and everybody knows that those are the best kind). Except in the case of interchangeable stooge number three who, after one screw-up too many, decides that patriotism is the way to go and stands up to the mad doctor. After a couple of racial slurs and a guarantee that the good ol’ US of… will prevail, he turns his back on the evil… well, maybe ornery is more apt… cabal and ends up alligator food. Such is life (or death)! Speaking of “interchangeable,” that’s as apt a term as any, because I couldn’t tell them apart if my life depended on it: dark hair under a hat, thin little Erroll Flynn moustache, the standard hood-speak of every crime movie of the time. If so many of them didn’t have to be in one room at the same time, I’d swear that they were all played by the same guy. By the way, the maniacal little giggle that emanates from from Daka when the guy drops in on the ‘gators is awesome!

So, we’ve got radium-powered ray guns, remote control zombies, a trap door with alligators on the other side, a self-painting car and a public phone booth with a secret door and a poison gas nozzle. Those are the least of the Batman’s worries, though, as he’s tossed off a skyscraper, dropped down an elevator shaft, has a mine collapse on his head, is trapped in a burning building, sealed alive in a casket and is generally ill-treated at the end of every cliff-hanging episode. This ain’t rocket surgery, kids, but it is fun!

BATMAN Serial Poster

BATMAN Serial Poster

Now, a couple of oddities that you may enjoy watching out for: Wilson and Croft use the other’s character names rather randomly. In the span of less than a minute, Batman calls Robin, “Dick” and Bruce calls Dick, “Robin”; Robin hardly ever uses “Batman,” it’s almost always “Bruce.” Alfred is a putz, used for comic relief. He is, nonetheless, very involved in the Dynamic Duo’s escapades, usually as chauffeur (the Batman uses the same ride that Bruce Wayne does, so I guess it just makes sense that they should also have the same driver, huh?), but occasionally as bait. Batman loses his cape more than once in the fight scenes, only to have it reappear when the camera angle changes; it also causes him trouble by wrapping around his arm or head while he’s throwing a punch. That’s probably why there are so few Marvel super-heroes who actually wear capes (I can think of Thor, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Storm of the X-Men and, occasionally, the Black Panther). Also, while the costume is really fairly accurate and looks good (most of the time), it isn’t exactly form fitting and tends to droop and sag in areas. Probably the weirdest thing about the Batman suit is the Underoos – they start right under the bat insignia, making our hero look like a 90 year old with his pants hiked up to his chest. The entrance (and exit) of the “Bat’s Cave” is a grandfather clock. Bruce and Dick use it often to sneak up on Alfred and make his life miserable. Bruce appears to be not only lazy, but shiftless,as well. Even so, his attractive, hard-working girlfriend sticks around and seems to generally like the guy. Must be the money (or whatever he’s packing in them giant-size Underoos). You’ll also notice that a lot of the stunts (I’m assuming they used actual stuntmen) look awfully painful! Remember, kids, they didn’t have CGI back then – that wall that Robin slammed into was a real, solid wall. I bet they had a gopher on set just to pass out aspirin after a fight scene.

Like I said before, this ain’t rocket surgery, so disengage your brain for a little while and enjoy a trip back to a simpler (if less tolerant) time with BATMAN – THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION.


THE SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY ARCHIVES

(Volume 1; 237 pages; DC ARCHIVE EDITIONS, 2005) (Volume 2; 228 pages; DC ARCHIVE EDITIONS, 2007) (Volume 3; 288 pages; DC ARCHIVE EDITIONS, 2008)

Seven Soldiers covers

For 14 glorious issues of a book called LEADING COMICS (published between 1941-1945), eight (!) marginal heroes from the popular anthology books published by National Periodicals (part of DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) were featured in some of the strangest and most exciting adventures of their time. Like the only other super-hero team of the era (DC’s popular Justice Society of America), the stories were basically solo adventures starring the respective members. The catch with the Soldiers (alternately called “Law’s Legionnaires”) was that, rather than meeting on a regular basis to recount individual heroic feats to their colleagues, they were brought together by a common foe, separated to handle particular aspects of the case best suited to each individual’s abilities and came back together for the ultimate defeat of the villain (or villains).

Another, more unique aspect of the team was the fact that, while all were superb physical specimens and each possessed quite analytical minds, they had no super powers. Green Arrow and his young partner, Speedy (appearing regularly in MORE FUN COMICS), perhaps the most well-known of the eight, were expert marksmen with the bow, often using trick arrows to stymie their opponents; the Vigilante (from the pages ACTION COMICS), a motorcycle riding ex-singing cowboy radio star was as adept with a lasso as he was with a six-shooter; the Crimson Avenger, along with his partner, Wing, the unofficial eighth Soldier (the character with the longest comics pedigree, as a back-up in DETECTIVE COMICS) wasn’t afraid of a dust-up, but preferred to use his brain before his brawn to out-think the bad guys; rich kid Sylvester Pemberton and his chauffeur, Pat Dugan, better known as the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy (who held sway in – where else? – STAR-SPANGLED COMICS) used expensive gadgets and Pat’s muscles; Sir Justin, the Shining Knight (appearing in the pages of ADVENTURE COMICS), was exactly what the name implies – a valiant knight of Arthur’s fabled Round Table displaced in time. Aside from the Knight’s magical sword, the only “super-powered” being in the entire lot, in fact, was Sir Justin’s winged horse.

Leading Comics #1, page 1 (art by George Papp)

Leading Comics #1, page 1 (art by George Papp)

The stories, the early ones mostly written by Mort Weisinger (with helping hands from Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger and the seemingly ever-present “Unknown”), were always long on action and fairly short on plot. That really didn’t matter then and, truly, it’s not too much of an issue now… other than the occasional moan-inducing plot device or the cringe-worthy characterizations of various ethnicities. If you are one of those easily offended PC types, any comic produced before the 1970s probably isn’t for you. Real people, on the other hand, recognize these books for what they are: historical reference points in the growth of the country’s march toward racial equality and tolerance. To say that such things shouldn’t be readily available is to say that things like discrimination (in all of its nasty forms), war, and racial strife are better off forgotten… treated as if they never existed. That, my friends, is where the famous axiom, “Those who do not remember are doomed to repeat,” comes into play. Sure, the portrayal of the Avenger’s “Oriental” sidekick, Wing, is overly stereotypical of the way Asians were viewed in the ’40s, but that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have an adverse affect on your enjoyment of these classic comics. Remember, the same things were happening in all entertainment mediums – from radio to film and beyond. Some of the movies and novels of the day are considered classics, even though they offered stereotypical views of Blacks, Jews, Germans and, often, women.

Leading Comics #1, page 5 (script by Mort Weisinger, art by George Papp)

Leading Comics #1, page 5 (script by Mort Weisinger, art by George Papp)

Okay, stepping down from the pulpit, let’s get back to the Seven Soldiers series. The first three issues of LEADING COMICS featured a different artist for each chapter, usually the character’s regular artist in their other appearances. George Papp drew all three Green Arrow chapters, as well as the wrap-around Soldiers chapters in the first issue’s story, “Blueprint For Crime.” Papp was a jobber… dependable, but not overly adventurous in his lay-out or execution. The Star-Spangled Kid’s chapters were handled by Hal Sherman. Let’s just say that his work was definitely an acquired taste – one I’m not certain that I will ever acquire. Sherman moves the story along, though, as he must. Jack Lehti, a cut or two above Hal Sherman talent-wise (though with more imaginative lay-outs), took care of the chapters starring the Crimson Avenger. Creig Flessel drew the Shining Knight chapters with a certain panache, an airiness that made his work seem a step above the norm. Though more adventurous than George Papp, his work – like Papp’s – was enjoyable and dependable. Mort Meskin drew four of the first five covers for LEADING COMICS, as well as the first three Vigilante chapters and the wrap-around chapters for numbers 2 and 3. Meskin’s work was stylized and unique, offering a – dare I say? – a Kirbyesque quality in lay-out and body structure and positioning. His Vigilante is the definite highlight of the first three issues and his cover for issue number 4 is certainly one of the best you’ll see.

Leading Comics #4 (cover art by Mort Meskin)

Leading Comics #4 (cover art by Mort Meskin)

Change was afoot with issue 4, as Bill Finger scripted the entire thing, called “The Sense Master.” Artist Ed Dobrotka dipped his pen in the inkwell on page one and didn’t let up until the final page. As I’m not the comics historian that someone like Roy Thomas is, I can’t say this with utmost certainty, but this could mark the first time that one artist was responsible for an entire 56 page comic book. Falling somewhere between Jack Lehti and George Papp talent-wise, Dobrotka’s work was serviceable and gave the story a nice sense of continuity from chapter to chapter. These first four issue make up the first volume of this archive series, with issues 5-8 filling up volume two and the final six issues (9-14) finishing up the archive collection in volume 3.

Dobrotka was back with issue number 5. Though this issue’s “The Miracles That Money Can’t Buy” and “The Treasure That Time Forgot” from number 6 are uncredited, comics scholar and foreword writer for volume 2 is fairly certain that honor belongs to Joe Samachson, who finished out the Law’s Legionnaires’ LEADING COMICS run. While the action and adventure aspects of the strip remained high, a little more thought was going into plot and script over the final 10 issues. In issue number 6, there was more interaction between the teammates, one of the more interesting teamings being the Shining Knight and the Vigilante. Oddly enough, Ed Dobrotka stuck around to do the cover for this issue; odder still is the fact that the only verifiable interior artwork comes from Maurice del Bourgo, who inked the entire issue and completely rendered the Crimson Avenger chapter. The pencil artist for the rest of the story remains unknown.

Leading Comics #3, page 53 (art by Mort Meskin)

Leading Comics #3, page 53 (art by Mort Meskin)

Issue number 7 features a story called “The Wizard of Wisstark.” The team comes together for charity and are suckered into a weird game of chance by an Oz-like master magician as, once again each hero is on their own until they come together at the end to defeat the bad guy. The artwork is at an almost impossibly high level of competency, with pencils by Pierce Rice. “Exiles In Time” in number 8 brings another artistic change, as last issue’s cover artist, Jon Small picks up the pencil, with Maurice del Bourgo returning to ink him. While not horrible, it is definitely a step down from Rice’s work in the previous issue. The plot revolves around one of the Vigilante’s old foes, the Dummy, who figures out a way to send the individual Soldiers careening through history. Not a new plot device, even then, but fun nonetheless.

Leading Comics #14 (cover art by Jon Small)

Leading Comics #14 (cover art by Jon Small)

With volume three of the archive series, the final six Soldiers stories for nearly 30 years are presented. With Samachson becoming ever more adept at devising interesting plot twists and storylines, the artistic reins finally were handed to Argentinian Arturo Cazaneuve. While Cazaneuve was certainly no Mort Meskin or Pierce Rice, he was more than up to the task of a team book, even if he did give Sylvester Pemberton an incredibly bulbous cranium at certain points throughout his run. His brother, Luis, split cover duties with Jon Small, to varying degrees of success. Issue number 14, “The Bandits From the Books,” is probably the best of the series, a fun romp through some classic reads with unforgettable villains. The cover, by Small, is a minor masterpiece. As a bonus, a script by Samachson, scheduled for LEADING COMICS number 15, is included. Unfortunately, the super-hero market was waning in 1945 and only big names like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman were able to maintain enough sales numbers to keep their titles afloat. Since the Seven Soldiers of Victory were made up of second-stringers, the decision was made to change LEADING COMICS to a “funny animal” book. As foreword writer, Roy Thomas, notes, the script finally got published in 1975, with artwork by some of DC’s most well-known names of the time.

So, my advice? Disengage your brain for a bit, take a trip back to a simpler time and check out the Seven Soldiers of Victory, gloriously reproduced in hardcover archive editions. You won’t be sorry. (DT)


THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY

(WARNER VIDEO, 2012)

the-dark-knight-trilogy-blu-ray-set-little

I have a confession to make: I wasn’t thrilled about BATMAN BEGINS. So much so, in fact, that I never even deemed it worthy of my time to watch it! I think it may have been the title. Maybe, I just didn’t want another BATMAN AND ROBIN (I still have nightmares over George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell’s costume nipples… and often wonder why Alicia Silverstone’s costume was nipple-free). Could be that the truth lies more with me being more of a Marvel guy. Whatever the reason, I have avoided it until now. And, whatever that reason may be, it has also caused me to avoid – plague-like – SUPERMAN RETURNS (apparently, the only thing that one had going for it was a completely nipple-less costume!).

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

Okay, while I’m feeling confessional, I’ll also tell you that the only reason that I went to see THE DARK KNIGHT (at a real, live drive-in, no less!) was because my niece and nephew wanted to see it and I wanted them to enjoy the drive-in experience at least once in their lives. By then, of course, everyone was talking about Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker and Academy Award in the same sentence. Even though Mister Ledger was dead, I knew that even a “pity Oscar” was out of the question for an actor in a “super-hero” flick. A lot of people were even going so far as to say that he absolutely personified the Joker. When friends and acquaintances heard that I’d (finally) seen the film, all I heard was, “What did you think of Heath Ledger’s Joker? Wasn’t he awesome?” To which I replied, “That wasn’t the Joker! Sure, he played a really great psychotic murderer, but that character wasn’t the Joker.” On this point, I was adamant. Why? Comic book tradition and origin stories: The origin story given for this guy wasn’t the origin of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. It was a story that would make almost anybody criminally insane and homicidal. It simply wasn’t what made the Joker who he was. I didn’t seem to mind that the origin of Two-Face was actually closer to the Joker’s than his true origin. But, I digress!

Next, of course, came the trilogy’s climax, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. What can I say? The Bane character never thrilled me and… Anne Hathaway as Catwoman? No thanks! Not interested! Plus… the thing was like 27 hours long or something. But, then along came Christmas in the year of our Lord 2012. With it came THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY COLLECTOR’S GIFT SET and a really sweet price for all three movies. I’m a sucker for a good deal, so…

Anyway, this is where the kicking of my own butt begins! BATMAN BEGINS wasn’t BATMAN AND ROBIN, PART DEUX. Batman’s origin story wasn’t exactly like the comics, but it was close enough. Christian Bale made an okay Batman and a great Bruce Wayne and iconic characters from Batman lore were treated with respect to their importance to the mythos (particularly Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow). Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon and Michael Caine as the Wayne family butler, Alfred, were almost spot on and both performances were definite highlights. Even at two hours and 20 minutes,I was pleased with the movie overall.

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

Bale’s throaty take on Batman begins to deteriorate in THE DARK KNIGHT and I just wanna give the guy a lozenge! That’s a minor complaint, but one that takes on larger proportions in the final film. Heath Ledger shows up early on and, after much consideration, I must say that – origin story aside – he really does make an excellent Joker! Aaron Eckhardt is dutifully solid as hot-shot District Attorney Harvey Dent and dutifully tragic as Two-Face… an acting job that, unfortunately, gets lost amid the manic performance of Ledger. Director Christopher Nolan gets even darker here than he did in BATMAN BEGINS, a portent of things to come (and a fitting homage to writer/artist Frank Miller, whose 1986 comic book mini-series, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, is the basis for Nolan’s vision on this trilogy). This movie takes the Batman to a very dark and violent place… and I like it!

Clocking in at just over three hours, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES takes place ten years after the last movie and sees Bruce Wayne in retirement (or, more precisely, his alter-ego is in retirement) and a Gotham City in desperate need of a hero. Bane (played by Tom Hardy and almost incomprehensible beneath that mask) is brought in to taunt the Batman out of retirement so he can kill him and assure victory for organized crime. I’m not gonna give you any spoilers (I’m sure that there are still people out there who haven’t seen these movies) but, let’s just say that hilarity DOES NOT ensue! Christian Bale’s Batman is even less understandable than in the last flick, but we muddle through. His Bruce Wayne is still good, though. Caine and Oldman are still rock solid as Alfred and (now) Commissioner Gordon, but… Holy Bat-Crap, Adam West! Anne Hathaway is… oh, just to be nice, I’ll merely call her horrible as Catwoman/Selina Kyle! Her take on this iconic villain even makes that turd with Halle Berry look good! Ra’s Al Ghul is back (and a major part of the storyline), but Ken Watanabe has been replaced in the role by Liam Neeson. Toss a coin to decide who delivered the better Ra’s. This finale definitely ups the violence factor, but also adds more of a comic book feel, which I, as true comic geek, certainly appreciate.

The whole thing is nicely packaged and, at right at eight hours of content (not counting special bonus material), a great value. Plus… the fact that the movies are fantastic doesn’t hurt.