Sunday, 24 July 2016

[Comic Review] - False Faces (Trade)

False Faces (Trade) by Brian K. Vaughan

In my mind Brian K. Vaughan is one of the great modern comic writers working today. With titles like Saga, Y The Last Man, Ex Machina and even Buffy the Vampire Season 8 above his name there is little doubt that this man is producing some of the highest quality work in the industry. What seams to set him apart form other "top writers" appears to be a willingness to embrace the ridiculous side of comics. In a age where there is more and more of a push into hyper-realism BKV was at the front of the wave crashing backwards into a lighter, more fun style that seams almost an nostalgic throw back to the comics of old and I see him as one of the trail blazers that lead to ideas like the DC Rebirth.
That is not to say that deeper meanings are not peppered through his works, Y The Last Stand seams to have a definite themed conceptual subtext in it, for example and that is why I hold him in such regard. He is able to infuse into his stories terribly deep, sometimes horrid events yet somehow never loose that joy which some comics are able to instil. Making kids eyes open in wonder and grown adults feel like children. What other author can make you laugh, horrify you, stimulate you mentally and get their book banned by major publishers? All in a single issue.

BVK is famous for his original IPs, and he has stated many times that he much prefers original content to writing existing characters. So most of his body of work is in this vain, yet over the years he has dabbled with some of the famous comic staples form the large Superhero publishers.

This "False Faces" trade represents his tragically short stint on Batman with the title story False Faces, and 3 smaller back up stories.

Mimsy Were the Borogoves (Detective Comics v1 #787)

No where is his reputation for lighter comics more apparent than "Mimsy Were the Borogoves". A one shot story from the pages of Detective Comics. This comic reads like a Saturday morning cartoon. In fact you would be forgiven in thinking you're reading a lost script from Batman the Animated Series and I am not talking about the cartoonish art style here.

Like the cartoon this tale is very child friendly. There is obviously some conflict, I mean it is a Batman tale, but it is very light. There is no death, there is no extreme violence and it follows the "crazy villain formula" that cartoons are forced to use as they can not have real murder and mayhem. The Joker throwing pies instead of stabbing people in the face, that kind of thing.

This is a one shot so there is not to much I can speak of without ruining the story, for like any half decent Batman tale there is an element of detection and discovery, which during a one shot can take up a large percentage of the plots time. That being said, those of you who are Science Fiction aficionados will instantly recognise the title as a reference to the famous short story of the same name originally published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. This is a reference and a clue which can place the well read reader out in front of Batman himself.

That being said I feel this is the weakest story in the book. While the art is fantastic, if you like the cartoon look, the book has one of my single most hated literally devices. The act of starting the action in the thick of it, to grab the readers attention and then a flash back to the "real" start of the story. This is a technique that has its origin in TV shows, and in all fairness it could be a nod to the Cartoon that very well may be the inspiration that spawned the story in the first place.

In my eyes any story of worth should be able to stand up through its own beginning. Having an opening few panels taken from the near climax of the story, and then flashing back to where the story should have started in the first place is extremely lazy in my eyes and shows a lack of confidence in the stories ability at holding the interest of the reader. If you could literally cut and paste the panels from the start and place them into the "correct" spot and it makes no difference, then something has gone wrong at the mechanical level while delivering the tale. This entire mechanism to instantly engross readers feels forced and is a mark of a weak delivery.

That is not to say this story doesn't have its charm. I particularly love the art, but the cartooish depiction of the characters through the writing, the simplistic plot and broken narrative from one of my most despised writing techniques really forces this story into a lower tier than you would expect from BVK.

A Piece of You (Wonder Woman #160 - #161)

"A Piece of You" is actually a Wonder Woman story that contains a Batman villain as the main antagonist. Some of you may know that I am a particularly dedicated Wonder Woman fanboy and find it hard to distinguish my love for the character from the quality of the story telling. I am just forgiving of things in a Wonder Woman book I wouldn't put up with in most other places. So fair warning.

Again BVK shows us that he has an affinity for the older style comics and has, in many ways rooted this story in what appears to be a tale right out of the Silver Age. Apart from Wonder Woman having the power of flight of course. Even so, there is an almost naivety to Wonder Woman in this book. An easy comparison is how Superman is shown in the Christopher Reed films, rescuing cats and saying things like "I fight for truth, justice and the American way." with out any trace of sarcasm. 

The story itself has a neat premise concerning her original origin story, where she was brought to life after being sculpted by clay. Once the reveal occurs in the story you are struck at how obvious the connection to the antagonist is and are left with a perplexed feeling as to why it was never spoken about sooner. The tale is also very funny, not in a joke / punchline kind of way, but in that playful assuming aspect that defined comics once upon a time before they were full of sex, swearing and ultraviolence.

Even so the crux of this story is not the villain, or the fight with him but the relationship of Wonder Woman to her sister Donna Troy. Now Donna Troy has one of the most convoluted origins you are likely to find in the pages of Wonder Woman, and in this time it is the post crisis "sister" version of her. She is not exactly de-powered but she is a far cry form Wonder Woman and in here lies the heart of what this comic is about.

... and that heart is all about identity and how to accept it. How dose one perceive themselves and is ones actions only possible because of self-identity. Donna Troy acts like a physical representation of a fun house mirrored version of Wonder Woman. One arguably less empowered and far less "chosen". Ideas about birthright and if Wonder Woman should be ashamed of her own blessings. A similar analogy could be children born to rich parents who need to accept and release the shame of actually liking their place in the world. Is it wrong for them when their parents go suddenly broke to lament what is lost to those that have never had such privilege?

I find these ideas and the depiction of her relationship with Donna to be one of the high points in this entire trade and it is these small touches of deep meaning that is classic BVK. This is what he dose best, with ideas that are nearly throw away touches all wrapped up in a fun story that has no consequences and exists only for pure abandonment. A bad guy starts making noise and throwing cars about, then Wonder Woman shows up and defeats him. You know what is going to happen after reading the first bubble, a simple tale in a style of comics you see less and less. Yet this story has true moments of character building which I suspect you may take with you into all the future stories where you see Wonder Woman.

False Faces (Batman v1 - #588 - #590)

Now we come to the meat and potato's of this trade and the reason most people will be picking it up. This is a Batman tale that should satisfy purist fans as well as those looking for that more modern idea of what Batman has become.

In some ways this story explores similar themes as the Wonder Woman one I just talked about. Though with Batman the parallel of identity is internalised and far more literal. Batman has always been considered by some to be slightly crazy in his own right. Many even considered him as much a part of the madness of Gotham as the villains he opposes, with only a few key differences separating him from them. There are so many stories that basically say Batman should be in Arkham himself that I could stack them as high as my shoulders.

What this story looks at is the duality of personality that is Bruce Wayne and Batman. For all intense and purposes different people. It is not uncommon in Batman stories for Bruce and Batman to refer to the other in the third person for example. BVK's idea here is that if there is an actual physiological reason for Batman maybe even that he has what is arguable as a split personality, would it really stop at one personality?

BVK illustrates this point, as he often dose with another character whom has an even more striking example of what he is hinting at with Batman. He then uses this other character as a mirror to pull into contrast the idea of split personalities. Once again he showing his love of the comic medium. Not by the story feeling like a throw back to the Silver Age, as with the Wonder Woman story "A Piece of You", but instead by choosing a under used character that could only ever exist in comics.

Allan Moore spoke of this idea concerning Watchmen, that comics are truly their own medium. He designed the ending of Watchmen as something that could never be done outside of the comic page, something proven true when the story was taken to the big screen. While cartoons can come close there are things you can do in comics that would be beyond ridiculous or completely inappropriate and horrific anywhere else. Yet comics having a closer relationship with traditional art than most mediums and gets painted by the same brush of imaginative freedom. The Ventriloquist is a great example of one such character. Admittedly he was introduced by Allan Grant and John Wagner of 2000AD fame and arguably a parody of Batman villains to begin with.

Even so, I predict that you will not be seeing something so ridiculous as The Ventriloquist in the coming movies or future TV shows and this is the kind of thing a non-comic reader will look over your shoulder, see, and instantly scoff at. Yet in my mind he is a throw back, a homage to something that modern comics has started to loose with its insistence on realism and following the design elements people are forced to use in live action film and some literature. Comics can be crazy wacky places, and that is one of the reasons that they can be so awesome.

BVK takes a character that is relegated to cartoons and avoided by live action and shows us the power that comics can still have. For while the concept is still preposterous, once you make the imaginative leap and accept it, once it's "a given", BVK then plays with the idea as if it was a realistic one. The idea of The Ventriloquist is just accepted as a internal logic, then built on.

Many will know of Matches Malone but others may not know of this character that has been around since 1970s. He started as a random thug but like many comic characters was given life most likely because of the simple fact that he has a cool name. While he was in a spattering of comics as himself the name is most well known as an alias which Batman uses to infiltrate the criminal world.  This persona was probably made the most famous by Batman : The Animated Series. Though for me this tale False Faces is the defining story for Matches Malone, the Batman alias.

What we really have here in this story is one of the all two rare glimpses of the actual "detective" who is the Dark Knight. It is revealed that Bruce has been using the Malone's alias for nearly as long as Batman and the story explores the idea of Batman's fractured personalities. Like The Ventriloquist's Scareface, Matches represents a personality free form the restrictions of Bruce or Batman, a third splinter of Bruce Wayne that can say and do things, go places, mix with people that would forever be in another world to the other aspects of himself, and we are left with the distinct feeling that Matches Malone is only one of many such "people" Batman can call on as he moves through Gotham.

There is also charming touches of Nightwing and Barbra Gordon. A relationship many comic fans became increasingly invested in over the years. Something grown organically from small throw away lines here and there until it became one of the truly great romances of the Batman books. 

The story of False Faces and that of our hero Batman degenerating into a physiological mess is a heavy story. No so much in gory content and the like, but it is the classic "darker" kind of story that Batman is iconized by. These small touches coming from Nightwing and Barbra Gordon add a much needed smile here and there for the reader. 

I feel this is truly one of the better Batman stories you can find. It doesn't have the reputation of Killing Joke or Dark Knight Returns, Hush and the like. It seams to have fallen under the radar of many. Yet, if you are looking for a great Batman tale which you have not absorbed through a kind of pop culture osmosis then this is a great one to try. The seamless stitching of the absurd, the dark, the deeper meanings and the charming levity is exactly why BVK is considered a master of the comic medium.

Lost Pages: Skullduggery (Batman: Gotham City Secret Files and Origins #1)

Finally we come to Skullduggery, the last and shortest story in the book at only a couple of pages in length. What we have here is a tragic, in its own way, yet tantalising glimpse of what a character called Skeleton could have been. Unfortunately there is so little to talk about here as it is just a introductory character tease. BVK himself said in a reddit AMA that he had planned to have Skeleton as a "behind the scene villain" who would permeate his entire run and be inextricably linked to the end goals of the story he had in mind. 

Who is "Skeleton"? What was his plan? How dose he do what he dose and why? We may never know for BVK left DC and the plot thread was never picked up again. Though I guess he did go off and write Saga so there is a pretty huge tick in the plus column as well when we think of his departure from DC.

While there is a similarity in name, do not get Skeleton mixed up with Dr Bones, and unfortunately you will not find more about him. Though it is a testament to the power of the introduction that I spend about 2 days, some forums posts, a visit to my local comic shop and a stack-exchange question looking for more of this tale. 

It is an intriguing taste, but ultimately once you learn the truth that there is no more, a bitter one. 

Final Thoughts

The trade Batman : False Faces is defiantly worth the effort to track down and get into your collection. It has 4 stories listed, but I feel that only 2 of them are really worth your time. "Skullduggery" is just a introduction and "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" is not really aligned to my tastes at all. "A Piece of You" on the other hand is a great light Wonder Woman story for a character that has really been groaning under the weight of her own seriousness. 

"False Faces" though is the real deal. This is not only a great Batman tale, one that is in the cannon incidentally, but also a Batman story that feels feel rather unique. It focuses not on Batman, not on Bruce Wayne but on the other aspect of him we all know but rarely see, "the worlds greatest detective". There is the awesome appearance of one of Batman's more silly villains who is treated with respect for a change rather than being the parody he was originally intended as and to pepper the dish is a sweet smattering of romance and levity through Nightwing's interactions with Barbra.

False faces is really a under rated classic and deserves a quality binding in your bookshelf.


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