- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with Blu-ray-enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, $29.99)  Another excellent sequential-art story teeters dangerously close to mediocrity in the hands of Warner Bros. Animation.

I’ve spent columns whining about the lack of innovative animation from the DC/Warner cabal when it turns comic books over to the Bruce Timm cartoon assembly line.

Finally, things are looking up and, pleasantly, different.

A faithful adaptation of the Jeph Loeb story (seen in the monthly Batman/Superman comic back in 2004) finds an adventure tied to the reintroduction of Supergirl.

Starring the triumvirate of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, in addition to numerous characters from Jack Kirby’s Now Gods Universe, the 78-minute effort pads the teen-angst drama of Kara Zor-El with loads of action.

As Darkseid brings his plan to turn Supergirl into the leader of the Female Furies to fruition, viewers enjoy an intense battle on Themyscira between Amazons and Doomsday Clones, slugfests on the planet Apokolips and an incredible, explosive ending not to be missed.

Tapping into the style of the late and very great Michael Turner  the story’s original artist  the studio delivers a welcome translation of his angular designs.

A pointy-eared Batman seems to float in midair with a cape like Morticia Addams’ gown wrapped around him, and Superman looks as if he was plucked from Turner’s drafting table.

The welcome return of Tim Daly as the voice of Superman and Kevin Conroy voicing Batman also gives fans a treat.

I’m still not blown away by the animation, but “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse” is well worth a look, especially in the high-definition format.

Best extras: The smorgasbord of bonus material includes four episodes from Superman: The Animated Series highlighting a two-parter devoted to Supergirl and a two-parter about Darkseid and the New Gods.

Also, a DC Showcase animated short stars the Green Arrow but is not as stylish as previous efforts spotlighting characters Jonah Hex and the Spectre.

The best of the extras is a quartet of backgrounders on some of the feature cartoon’s major characters.

Start with 22 minutes’ worth of “The Fourth World: The New Gods,” which doubles as a biography of master comic-book creator and “Gods-father” Jack Kirby, complete with his artwork and tributes from DC staff and legend Walter (Thor, Orion, X-Factor and Fantastic Four) Simonson.

Follow up with two four-minute, resource-heavy discussions on Orion and Mr. Miracle, both richly embellished with comic art from Mr. Kirby.

Conclude with an exhaustive and concise 17-minute retrospective on Supergirl explained through art and by some DC editorial staff members.

However, it’s also really nice to hear from women on the subject, including comics writer Gail Simone, Dark Horse Comics editor Dianafixed Schutz, actress Laura Vandervoort (“Smallville’s” Kara), and movie Supergirl, actress Helen Slater.

Read all about it: DC Comics offers the original six-issue Supergirl From Krypton story arc in the trade paperback “Superman/Batman: Volume 2, Supergirl” ($12.99).

30 Days of Night: Dark Days, (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, not rated, $30.95)  Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s fantastic vampire comic-book series proved fertile ground for filmmakers in 2007.

The film’s sequel arrives direct to Blu-ray and falls into a gory, bloody rut that can never match the brilliance and shock of the sequential art upon which it is based.

So, we already know our heroine Stella Oleson survived the bloodsucking onslaught in Barrow, Alaska, thanks mostly to her brave husband, who died painfully in the slaughter.

Stella is back to convince the world that vampires exist and exact revenge. Her mission takes her to the seamier side of Los Angeles, where she works with a ragtag group of vampire hunters that sets out to destroy Lilith, the queen of the blood brood, before a new army of fanged killers returns to Alaska.

Sounds great, eh? Backed by Mr. Templesmith’s wonderfully moody art, the comic-book version excels at this horror.

Unfortunately, the movie adaptation plays out like a linear video game or even a dark ride at a theme park, staying mired in predictability without its own style.

For the sake of sequential art, read the books liberally and stick with the first film for your 30 Days fix.

Best extras: I loved the slick feature “Graphic Inspirations: Comic to Film,” which allows viewers to choose from six pieces of Mr. Templesmith’s art and take a closer look at parts of the film’s mythos compared to the comic.

Despite director Ben Ketai explaining the finesse and nuances of his adaptation, the artwork that swirls around him dominates the featurettes covering topics such as the vampire Dane, Agent Norris, the hunters and the final moments of Stella’s life.

Read all about it: IDW Publishing produces all of the 30 Days of Night comic books, and the simple purchase of the Dark Days trade paperback (which compiles the six-issue miniseries from 2003, $19.99) will quench the thirst of any vampire fan.

Jonah Hex (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, $35.99)  DC Comics’ famed supernatural gunslinger was brought to cinematic live-action life earlier this year courtesy of actor Josh Brolin.

The film arrives in the Blu-ray format to remind viewers that comic-book legends need more than a scattered selection of scenes and cool weapons to make a great movie.

Within an 82-minute spaghetti Western, director Jimmy Hayward squeezes a plot about the introduction of a weapon of mass destruction in post-Civil War America among the stories of Hex’s violent origin (which includes a nice bit of animation), his conflict with archenemy Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich at his most lethargic) and his teaming up with prostitute Lilah, played by Megan Fox. (Jonah’s horse gets more screen time.)

Moments to appreciate include Jonah’s power to resurrect the dead temporarily, his use of a crossbow pistol loaded with dynamite, and a viewer’s ability to rent and quickly return the film to Netflix.

Best extras: Viewers can turn on an optional video pop-up box to watch what essentially is a behind-the-scenes documentary, “The Weird Western Tales of Jonah Hex,” while the movie plays. The documentary is more annoying than interesting as it clutters the screen with production staff and actors gushing about Mr. Brolin.

Fans should stick with the information-packed 10-minute featurette “The Inside Story of Jonah Hex.” It presents tons of great artwork showing the evolution of the meanest hombre in sequential art over the past 32 years and features interviews with original Hex artist Tony DeZuniga and comics chroniclers such as Joe R. Lansdale, Timothy Truman and Jimmy Palmiotti.

For an extra that should have been included, check out the “Batman: Under the Red Hood” Blu-ray (Warner Home Video, $29.99) to find the slick animated short “DC Showcase: Jonah Hex,” starring the voices of Thomas Jane as Hex and Linda Hamilton as Madame Lorraine.

Read all about it: I’d suggest that the mature reader enjoy the Jonah Hex: No Way Back (DC Comics, $19.99) graphic novel created by writers Mr. Palmiotti and Justin Palmer and illustrated by the legendary Mr. DeZuniga.

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