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Friday in the Batcave

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday in the Batcave

In the past, I have been very rude about DC’s obsession with creating story platforms at the expense of actual, you know, stories. I was particularly snotty about the Batman crossover Battle For The Cowl being a shameless money grab…. everything I’ve come to despise about modern ‘event’ comics, a story that existed solely to set up other stories.

All that being said… now I have to eat some crow.

Not about Battle For The Cowl, I hasten to add. It was one of the most unnecessary DC crossovers I’ve seen in a while — and I was around for Genesis and War of the Gods, so that’s saying something.

However, I’m a Batman guy from way back. As I’ve said before, I always have to look at what’s going on in the Bat books…. even if I’m not buying them, I have a ridiculous need to stay current with the goings-on in Gotham City. (When I mock comics fans for treating issues of their favorite superhero book like they are actual news dispatches, continuing to read stuff they hate because they can’t stand not knowing what’s going on, I assure you, I do not exclude myself. My only excuse is that I’m getting a lot better about not spending money on doing that.)

But sometimes this lunatic compulsion to always know what’s up with Batman pays off. Because, having followed all the “Batman: Reborn” launches this month, I find myself largely nodding and saying, okay, good job, DC. Those look to be shaping up as some fine Bat comics in our future. Even the one from Judd Winick, which frankly shocked me considering how much I despised his last run on Batman.

I’m going to go down the list one-by-one, but here are some general thoughts to start with.

I have been a Batman fan for forty years, from the Adam West days on up…. so I’ve seen a lot of different versions. I was around for the first time Dick Grayson took over for his mentor, right after the whole Knightfall business in the 1990’s.

I liked Prodigal quite a bit, but it was clearly a one-shot story, and it had a lot less dramatic weight because we all knew it was just temporary.

This time around, the Dick Grayson-as-Batman concept has got a lot more power, for a couple of different reasons.

For one, the scope is bigger. Characters across the DCU are involved in it — the JLA, the ancillary supporting cast — and at least in the books themselves, those characters are all treating it as permanent. This isn’t the ‘substitute for a little while’ story that we usually get when editors decide to put a new guy in the superhero suit, like we saw with James Rhodes as Iron Man or John Walker as Captain America… or, for that matter, with Dick Grayson’s previous turn as Batman in Prodigal. This is being portrayed more like the way DC rolled out Wally West taking over as the Flash, as a full-on reboot of the Batman titles.

It’s all very well for us to sit on the sidelines and sneer, “Well, whatever, it’s never going to stick, Bruce Wayne will be back in plenty of time for the next Batman movie.” I’ve done my share of that kind of jaded bitching myself (and to be honest, I still fully expect DC to walk this back within eighteen months.)

But the more I see of Dick Grayson as Batman, the better I like the concept. If Bruce Wayne never came back, I think I’d be okay with it, in the same way I was okay with Wally West replacing Barry Allen.

Secondly, the way this is set up, it’s not just a passing-of-the-torch legacy story. It’s got a really intriguing premise — it’s not just Dick as Batman, but also Bruce Wayne’s illegitimate son Damian as the new Robin.

And here again I’m having to chow down on some more crow. I disliked Damian enormously when he showed up — both the character, he came across as a little ass, and the concept itself. I found it difficult to believe that Talia kept him a secret for ten years, or however many years it would have to be. (Damian is ten, according to the latest issue of Batman and Robin.) Even with the elasticity of comic-book chronology and taking the most forgiving approach possible to assembling a timeline for these events, that puts Bruce Wayne as pushing fifty at the time of Final Crisis, so it’s best not to think about it too hard at all. Because if you count up Dick’s time as Robin, then add his solo years at college and with the Titans, then follow that with Jason Todd’s turn as Robin that led up to Death In The Family, followed by Tim Drake’s time in the Robin suit and all those adventures… and remembering that Batman’s first encounter with Ra’s Al Ghul happened while Dick was at Hudson University, well, even if you posit that Damian was conceived when Bruce and Talia spent a hot weekend in the Himalayas somewhere between the panels of “Daughter of the Demon,” the best estimate I can manage is still putting Bruce Wayne within shouting distance of AARP membership at the time of “Batman R.I.P.”

…Sorry, veered off down a nerd rabbit trail there for a moment. Sometimes I can’t help myself. Anyway, like I said, best not to think about it — and I’m not going to let continuity quibbles get in the way of enjoying these books. The important thing is that now that Damian is installed as Robin, I’m finding that the idea really works.

We fans forget sometimes, with our habit of looking at these characters as real,  that conflict is what drives a story.  No matter how offensive Damian might be to us, the bottom line is that his presence here makes for some great drama. The idea of Robin as a brat who needs redemption is interesting… but what really sells it is the idea that it’s Dick Grayson’s Batman — himself untried and untested– that has to help him find that redemption. So we’ve got a Batman and Robin who have to learn not just how to be the new Batman and Robin, but also find out exactly what they’re made of underneath the Batman and Robin roles as well.

The reason that’s such a smart move and works so well is because doing it this way means it’s not just about genuflecting to the legacy any more, not the way it would have been if they’d kept the Tim Drake character in the Robin suit. Do that and it’s just Prodigal again with better art. This is a whole new thing.

I’m a sucker for the redemption story where the hero has to reach within himself and face his own flaws head-on to pull out the win… and here it’s built right in to the premise for both Batman and Robin. I love that. (That said, if we’re still seeing asshole Robin a year from now, it’s going to have gotten very tiresome. I’m hoping there’s a real plan here and not just a riff.)

I also really like the editorial approach I’m seeing so far. Not surprising, since it’s the approach I like in all my superhero books: Tell individual stories and keep things self-contained. “Batman Reborn” is plastered across all these relaunched titles, but they’re not part of a crossover. They’re each doing their own thing. I’ll tell you flat-out that this was much more attractive to me as a comics-buying customer — in other words, I bought more of these issues because I was intrigued and wanted to see more, not because I felt forced to by a mega-crossover storyline that skipped from one title to the next. Moreover, the stories aren’t buried under a ton of Batman lore from the past — things move, stuff happens. Every one of these relaunch issues I’ve looked at over the last couple of weeks has been a good jumping-on point. That pleased me as well.

All that’s the overview. Let’s look at the individual books.

Batman by Judd Winick and Ed Benes was a pleasant surprise. I’ll level with you — I was annoyed with myself for forgetting to tell my retailer to cancel this title from my pull list, because I absolutely was not going to spend any more money on Judd Winick superhero comics. Between Winick’s Outsiders and his first run on Batman, I was done.

But since the shop pulled it for me, I felt obligated to buy it, and be damned if I’ll buy a comic I don’t read. So I looked at it and I decided Brian was dead-on in his assessment — this story was way better than Battle For The Cowl and rendered it moot besides.

The bulk of the book is exposition and setup, but it’s good setup, it works. We see the explanation for why Dick Grayson ends up as Batman, and more, we see why he thinks it’s necessary. (I think our other Greg was wondering about that, and that explanation is here.) I especially liked that the impetus for Dick taking on the Batman identity came from Alfred, particularly Alfred’s line, “They’ll want to have one of their costumed parades. A half mile of spandex and body armor all lined up behind an empty coffin with a cape draped over it. No.” In other words, Dick is Batman now because he knows Bruce Wayne would have wanted Batman to go on. It’s not so much about Gotham needing a Batman — though I think it’s pretty clear that it needs a hero– as it is about Dick (and even Alfred) needing that hero to be Batman, so they can at least feel like Bruce Wayne’s life meant something. That rang true to me. I can buy that, it doesn’t feel contrived. (Certainly, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the rationale behind putting Jean-Paul Valley in the role back during “Knightfall.”)

That’s most of the issue, setting that all up. The last few pages are leading up to next issue’s confrontation with the Scarecrow, which I guess is supposed to be Dick’s initial outing as Batman. So even though I still don’t care for Ed Benes’ art — he’s got that whole over-rendering, squinchy-eyed 90s thing going on — nevertheless, I’ll keep it on the list for now.

*

Red Robin was one of the weaker entries in this new wave of launches, but I still liked it okay.

This is Tim Drake’s new home, apparently, and it’s an ongoing, not a mini-series, so I gather it replaces Robin in the Bat-family of titles.

I have some quibbles. My biggest one is, why would Tim choose “Red Robin” as his new heroic identity? He’s never read Kingdom Come. Because apart from that tenuous connection to a story that came out thirteen years ago, it just is annoying. The costume is not that great, the name is dumb — in fact, I keep thinking of the burger chain, so I guess it’s a good thing the first story arc is set in Europe.

It’s marginally less likely that crooks over there will point at him and laugh. “Red Robin? And I suppose Chuck E. Cheese is right behind you?” (I can’t be the only one who thought of that.)

Why not make Tim Drake the new Nightwing? That makes more sense to me. Everybody moves up a step in Bat-seniority. And that seems to be the premise Chris Yost is trying to sell in the first issue, especially with the scene where Dick is explaining to Tim why he chose Damian to be Robin. It would be the most natural thing in the world after Dick tells Tim, “You’re not my protégé, Tim, you’re my equal, my closest ally, you’ll be okay,” for him to follow that with, I’ll have my hands full with Damian. I was counting on you to take over as Nightwing.

But he doesn’t say that. Instead there’s a contrived little spat with Damian and Tim huffs off in a huff. Cut to the new Red Robin busting heads in Europe.

So that’s my main quibble. I don’t like the new outfit or the new name, and I think the setup was awfully ham-handed. But once we’re back to Tim in solo action it works better, and I like the last-page reveal of Ra’s Al Ghul, back in business and targeting Tim.

I don’t mean to slight artist Ramon Sachs, it’s just that I’m pretty much a story guy. Mr. Sachs does a nice job here and I like seeing guys who ink their own work. The art’s just solid straight-up superhero work, however; it’s not particularly breathtaking, though it’s certainly not bad.

Overall verdict? I didn’t like this enough to put it on my list, but right now I’m interested enough to come back next month, at least. Writer Chris Yost has one more issue to sell me on this title. I always liked the premise of Nightwing and that seems to be the niche this book wants to fill, the grown-former-sidekick tale. Because of that, I’m willing to hang in there past the overture, but not much longer than that.

*

Since Paul Dini’s not on Detective any more, he gets two new titles to make up for it.

Gotham City Sirens by Dini and artist Guillem March serves as sort of a replacement for both Catwoman and Birds of Prey, I guess.

Sadly, it can’t hold a candle to either one of those. This was the only one of the lot of new Bat books that just left me completely cold. I really wanted to like it, too… I generally like what Paul Dini writes when he’s left to himself, I expected good things.

But the whole book just felt kind of generic to me, starting with the opening scene where Catwoman breaks up a mugging (quick, show of hands — how many of you out there can name twenty other superhero stories that opened with that scene? Protagonist on a rooftop hears a scream and goes to check it out, etc., etc.) Dini doesn’t even give us a twist on it, it really is the standard introduction of the heroes by way of stopping a mugging.

Not much going on in the rest of the issue to make up for it, either. Catwoman has a little trouble with her mugger and is helped out by Poison Ivy, and then they go back to Ivy’s place (which is really the Riddler’s place, but Ivy’s taken it over.) Then Harley Quinn happens by and the three girls decide to set up shop together.

My main problem with all this was that I couldn’t turn off the part of my brain that always wants to note various holes in the story. If Selina’s still feeling weak from her recent physical hardships, what’s she doing bouncing around rooftops? Why would Selina be the one to offer a partnership to a pair of psychos like Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, especially since it’s noted a few pages earlier by both Ivy and Selina herself that they don’t get along? “Gotham’s not safe for any of us on our own” strikes me as a really weak rationale to hang this premise on. And so on. The whole issue from first to last had that sense you get from a bad TV pilot, the feeling that the characters are only doing certain things because the writer needs them to in order to get things moved from point A to point B.

I did like the art, though Guillem March seems like an artist who’s still finding his way.

His anatomy is shaky at times, and I could have done without a lot of the gratuitous cheesecake shots, but I suppose those are pretty much a given when you have “Sirens” as part of the title. On the other hand, I loved his faces, they’re wonderfully expressive.

Nevertheless, as a first issue, this didn’t really work for me. I doubt I’ll be back next month, despite the mildly interesting idea for a cliffhanger.

Batman: Streets of Gotham fared quite a bit better, at least with me.

Basically, this is the book for the people who were enjoying Paul Dini’s run on Detective with Dustin Nguyen. Dini picks up without missing a step practically right where he left off with “Heart of Hush,” and except for Mr. Dini’s determination to make us like Hush as a villain (not working on me, sorry) this is a good solid Batman story. There are nice bits with Harley Quinn, who is used much better here in a walk-on than she is over in her own new book, and also with Commissioner Gordon, though the chronology of when Gordon decided to accept this new Batman is getting a bit muddy…. it makes me wonder, once again, if DC editors ever talk to each other.

The villain of the piece is Firefly, and Dini treats him as a compulsive serial arsonist, giving us a much crazier Garfield Lynns than we’ve seen in the past.

(Rather like Donald Sutherland’s character in Backdraft, if you ever saw that one.)

Anyway, I liked this story quite a bit. That by itself would probably have persuaded me to put this book on my list, but additionally we also get a backup story — Manhunter, by Marc Andreyko and Georges Jeanty.

For an old-school DC guy like me, this was a wonderful treat. I love the idea of comics with lead and backup features, always have. And this particular backup is a really good fit for the title (I got absurdly sentimental about a Bat book having “Manhunter” in the back again, even if it’s not running in Detective.) Apart from all that, I have been following the new Manhunter’s adventures in trade and enjoying those stories a lot, so it’s a pleasure to see that DC’s found the character a home.

I suppose I should stop calling Kate Spencer the ‘new’ Manhunter since I think five trade paperbacks’ worth of solo adventures and a stint in Birds of Prey makes this particular Manhunter the most successful version DC’s ever had, even if you count all the variations on Paul Kirk as being the same one. Anyway, this story is largely setting up Kate’s new status as a Gotham City D.A. and catching up new readers on what she’s all about, but Andreyko and Jeanty manage to get some action in there as well. One of the things I like about an eight-page chapter format is that it forces the writer and artist to really work at not wasting space, there’s no padding here. But it doesn’t feel cramped or rushed either.

Overall I think Batman: Streets of Gotham might end up being the sleeper hit of the new era of Bat books. All the others are getting a bigger marketing push, but this is a really well-crafted title and it deserves a little love. It’s the first time in quite a long time I felt like I got my money’s worth from a single issue of a comic book. Here’s hoping all involved can keep it up, they’re off to a good start.

*

Detective Comics is, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, the home of the new Batwoman.

This book is in the same format as Batman: Streets of Gotham, a lead and a backup, so this is another title that gets my inner DC fanboy to smile in pleased recognition.

Everyone’s talking about how gorgeous the art from J.H. Williams is, and I have to agree. Every page is stunning.

But I enjoyed the story as well. Sometimes I think people forget just how good Greg Rucka can be when he’s doing straight-up crime fiction. It was a well-constructed first act, it felt like a complete piece even though this was just about introducing the new Batwoman to readers and bringing everyone up to speed. Thankfully, Rucka gets right to the action and does his introductions on the fly rather than screwing around with a lot of backstory and exposition.

The backup feature starring the Renee Montoya Question was nice too, though not quite as well-executed as the Manhunter 8-pager over in Streets of Gotham. Story by Rucka, again, with a serviceable art job from Cully Hamner. I think everyone who was a fan of the O’Neil/Cowan Question book will enjoy this strip, though it wasn’t quite as new-reader-friendly as I would have liked. I can see why DC paired the two Greg Rucka features together, I guess, though I’m sentimental enough to wish that Manhunter was over here in Detective and the Question was running in Streets of Gotham. But that’s just me having a bout of fanboy OCD.

I did have one gripe, though I’m not sure exactly who’s responsible for it — I suppose DC’s production department. But I really wish someone in editorial would think through the page layouts and ad placement so we don’t have the last page of the lead feature butting right up against the first page of the backup, especially since the “Continued” caption tends to get lost in the computer coloring without a box around it– and the backup features don’t start off with a big splash panel. In the old days, there’d be a break, some sort of buffer between the lead and the backup — an ad, a letters page, something. Otherwise, it makes it look like it’s all one story, it’s disconcerting. But that’s just a minor complaint, and certainly not something that will keep me from coming back next month and every one thereafter for as long as Greg Rucka and company are turning out stories like this.

*

And that brings me to the clear headliner of the bunch. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely on Batman and Robin.

I’m not nearly as high on Mr. Morrison’s work as my colleagues here at CSBG, and I thought the “Batman: R.I.P.” storyline ended up as a bit of a mess. I was really expecting not to like this book very much; I was worried that we were going to get the meta-self-referential Grant Morrison that did “R.I.P.” and Final Crisis.

Instead, what I’ve seen over the first two issues of Batman and Robin is some of the best straight-up superhero comics I’ve run across in years. This is the joyous adventure-fiction-writing Grant Morrison, the fellow that did all that fun stuff on JLA and New X-Men. I found myself grinning ear-to-ear by the time I hit page eight of Batman and Robin #1 and saw that choreographed double punch to the face that sends Mr. Toad into the drink.

Which is not to say that this story doesn’t have its dark, disturbing, Gothic moments. It’s Gotham City, after all. But the sense of adventure — I keep coming back to that word — that suffuses the whole enterprise is just palpable.

This is what I’d hoped we were going to get when DC announced All-Star Batman and Robin four years ago. It’s not the least bit campy or silly, but somehow what Grant Morrison has constructed here is really evoking that same let’s-go! vibe that I first got from the 1966 Batman TV show when I was five years old… but he’s doing it such a way as to please the adult comics fan who’s looking for an engaging story.

I certainly don’t want to minimize the contribution of Frank Quitely on the art side of things. Every page is a joy to look at; the body language alone is amazing. Every character has an individual posture and carriage, each person in the story stands and moves in a unique fashion. Take a closer look at these cover poses, look how the way each character is standing tells us about what kind of people they are.

Oddly, considering that this is not the traditional Bruce Wayne Batman and Dick Grayson Robin, nevertheless Morrison and Quitely have somehow managed to do what I’d classify as one of the purest classical Batman stories I’ve seen in a long time. All the elements are there: A grotesque scary villain. An eerie mystery that’s going to call for detective work. A desperate police department lights the Bat Signal. An impetuous, eager Robin and a thoughtful, cautious Batman. Character moments for Commissioner Gordon and Alfred. Fisticuffs.

And yet it all feels amazingly fresh and new, because all this is set against the backdrop of the character premise I talked about at the beginning, of Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne’s search for redemption.

It’s shaping up to be a great ride. I’m definitely on board for it.

*

And that sums up the current slate of Bat-titles. I hope sales bear out this approach because I’d love to see a lot more of this kind of thing from DC. I’d like to see the Bat office stick with this direction for a while — especially since this is the first time in several years it looks like DC actually had a direction in mind for a franchise instead of just frantically flailing around.

At any rate, it’s nice to see the Batbooks rocking so hard — really, Sirens is the only one that I’d classify as an out-and-out clunker, and Red Robin might still turn it around, I’m not ready to give up on it just yet. So that’s four out of five that I’d call worth checking out.

That’s really encouraging… especially since I was becoming convinced that DC editorial had forgotten that their business is stories, not “events.” It’s nice to be proved wrong about that. I don’t mind a little crow once in a while if it means we get books this good.

See you next week.

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