Shades of Gray(son): Rounding up June's Bat-books

So there I was in the spring of 1988, a college freshman buying snacks at the local convenience store, when I saw Amazing Spider-Man #300 sitting on the magazine shelf. I knew artist Todd McFarlane had helped make the book pretty popular, and I had fond memories of writer David Michelinie from his earlier work on Iron Man and Avengers. Accordingly, I stuck with ASM through the end of McFarlane's run (in #325), and never gave much thought to Spidey's two other regular titles. Spectacular Spider-Man and Web Of Spider-Man might have been great reads, but for whatever reason, I just wanted the "headliners," Michelinie and McFarlane.

I suspect the same is true these days with the Batman line. Yesterday's releases of Detective Comics #854 and Gotham City Sirens #1 close out the first month of the Big Batman Relaunch. The Grant Morrison-written Batman And Robin (drawn initially by Frank Quitely) has drawn the most attention, with much of the rest going to Detective's Batwoman lead (written by Greg Rucka, drawn by JH Williams III). Each of these high-profile creative teams has been charged with producing new-reader-friendly stories, and thereby building an enduring foundation of loyal consumers.

However, DC is not about selling just two Bat-books at a time; otherwise, they wouldn't have stopped at just Batman and Detective. The new Batman, Dick Grayson, has already made one guest-shot (in Booster Gold #21, which came out two weeks ago), and will be showing up in books like Vigilante and his own Blackest Night miniseries. More to the point, though, the revamped Bat-line now includes two books written by Paul Dini (Streets Of Gotham and the aforementioned Gotham City Sirens), as well as Red Robin, the continuation of/replacement for Tim Drake's original solo title. Therefore, to give you the reader a little more guidance than I got back in the day, here's my survey of June's Bat-titles.

* * *

Actually, considering all that's been said about Batman And Robin #1, I don't have much to add. More than likely this series will be the line's best seller, and readers of multiple Bat-books may well look to it for the "definitive" portrayals of Dick and Damian. I find that a little ironic with regard to Dick, considering that returning Batman writer Judd Winick handled Dick-as-Nightwing in various titles (including Outsiders and Titans) over the past few years. Still, I'm not here to stir up trouble. B&R is undoubtedly meant to stand alone, so that people who wouldn't touch a Batman book without Morrison and/or Quitely can read this one without further obligation. After all, that's why I didn't go any further into the Spider-books.

In this respect, it's a little hard to believe that Batman And Robin is connected to the rest of the Bat-line, let alone the rest of DC's superhero books. Sure, there are references to the Justice League and "[giving] Tim Drake his old job back," but reading issue #1 I was more aware of Morrison's and Quitely's particular styles than the book's contributions to its shared universe. It reminds me of their work on New X-Men, which was great on its own but (so I've heard) was tough to reconcile with the other X-books. Conversely, Morrison's JLA was very much plugged into current DC events, incorporating such things as Superman's new powers and Wonder Woman's temporary godhood. Still, that was a function of JLA's format, and it's hardly a requirement for quality superhero fare. Accordingly, the heavy continuity lifting falls primarily on the Batman title.

It's probably not fair to judge the bulk of writer Judd Winick's return to Batman by his first new issue, #687. For one thing, penciller Ed Benes won't be back for #688, since Mark Bagley is coming aboard for four issues. Furthermore, issue #687 is subtitled "An Epilogue To Battle For The Cowl," and it functions pretty much as a bridge between that event and B&R #1. Nevertheless, that in itself suggests Winick's orientation towards the Bat-books' (traditional) flagship. Batman And Robin is the main attraction, and Morrison no doubt has considerable leeway to do what he wants with the title. That leaves Batman with the task of making the new Dynamic Duo make sense, both in the immediate context of the Bat-books and the larger DC Universe. Batman #687 depicts a number of "housekeeping," gap-filling moments which longtime readers probably expected to see, but which weren't necessary to the stories other writers wanted to tell. These include a visit from Superman and Wonder Woman, Bruce's low-key funeral, Dick and Alfred's shared grieving, and the establishment of the new Batcave. Future solicitations indicate that Winick will be picking up on at least one of BFTC's subplots, the power struggle between the Penguin and Two-Face. Like so much of BFTC, I thought that thread was given short shrift, so I'm looking forward to seeing what Winick does with it. Indeed, using the familiar villains as supporting characters is something I have always liked, especially in the Bat-books of the 1980s.

Therefore, I hope there's some soap opera in Batman, because otherwise it could all wind up in Streets Of Gotham. When the title was first announced I compared it to the late, lamented Gotham Central, but that's not really accurate at all. SOG's twenty-one-page lead story focuses on Commissioner Gordon, Harley Quinn, Firefly, and Tommy "Bruce Wayne" Elliott; features both Batman and Robin; makes reference to Catwoman and Black Mask; and introduces two new characters, child runaway Katy and her hulking rescuer "Abuse." One plot thread flows into the next, with Firefly's new scheme tying most of the issue together, but the whole thing is a narrative sprawl. Since writer Paul Dini and penciller Dustin Nguyen were most recently the creative team on Detective Comics, the Tommy Elliott/Hush subplot they started there is picked up here. However, it shouldn't confuse a new reader, since the gist of it (and the related reference to Catwoman) is explained quickly in dialogue. Assuming those hypothetical new readers aren't skeeved out by the depravity which threatens little Katy, SOG's biggest weakness might be its ambition. Again, it covers a lot of ground before setting up a Firefly-vs.-Batman confrontation, and I'd say it needs to focus more efficiently in future issues.

Dini also writes this week's Gotham City Sirens #1 (illustrated by Guillem March), which I found enjoyable enough. It too picks up on Dini's use of Hush, but this time from Catwoman's point of view. The unnecessary heart surgery Hush performed on her (and the measures taken to heal her) have left her a lot weaker than normal, so she links up with Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn to get back on her feet. They all fight aspiring new villain Boneblaster, a punk with sonic-pulse gloves looking to make a name for himself. That part of the story is pretty simple, and is told pretty well, but I was struck by the allusions to previous story arcs. First of all, Dini also brings in Zatanna and the (reformed) Riddler, two characters he used often in Detective. However, the bad blood between Ivy and the Riddler goes back over four years, to an extended arc which tried to bridge the gap between his role in "Hush" and his short-lived makeover in Legends Of The Dark Knight. That arc is referenced only in passing here, and reading it certainly isn't required to make sense of GCS #1. In fact, it helps justify the setup (Ivy's mind-controlling the Riddler into servility) without alienating the new folks. By contrast, the references to Catwoman's erstwhile successor Holly aren't explained, and -- arguably worse -- they relate back to Harley and Holly's friendship as shown in the Dini-run Countdown To Final Crisis. Now, maybe we'll get some more background on Holly in future issues, but for a first issue, that sort of vagary sticks out.

There's no good transition to this next topic, so I'll just say this: I didn't think Gotham City Sirens #1 went out of its way to be Teh Sexxay. The cover features provocative poses and come-hither looks, and Zatanna gets tied up in a bathrobe with her butt in the air, but that's about it for the gratuitous cheesecake. Admittedly, that might be enough for some readers, and it's not like I was expecting Tarot, but I was a little concerned.

You'd think I'd take that opportunity to cruise onto Detective Comics #854, the grand reintroduction of Batwoman, but I want to talk a little about Red Robin #1 (written by Christopher Yost). I have never been a real Tim Drake scholar, at least not in the sense that I could tell you the details of his various peer relationships. However, according to RR #1, the turmoil following Bruce Wayne's death has completely put the zap on his head, such that by the time the issue opens he's already telling us he's broken people's bones. Tim never struck me as a bone-breaker before, is what I'm saying. Indeed, if there is such a thing as an emo tough-guy, the new Red Robin is he.

Granted, since he talked his way into Batman's good graces twenty years ago (or, in comics time, while in junior high), Tim's seen both biological parents murdered, had his adoptive father fried by a being of pure evil, and has lost the only job for which he's received any meaningful training. I suppose that would send me to Europe in a new crimefighting costume and under the name of "Tim Wayne," but this is such a tonal shift from my perception of Robin III that it almost reads like a parody of angsty '90s Batman. It also doesn't help that artist Ramon Bachs makes "Red Robin" look about five years older and fifteen pounds heavier than Tim. Obviously Red Robin is supposed to fill the void left by its canceled predecessor -- with the pre-release bonus mystery of who would be in the suit -- but I'm glad this doesn't tie directly into the rest of the line, because it's simply not that engaging.

At the other end of that particular spectrum is Detective Comics #854. I'm happy to see that it apparently isn't tying into the rest of the Bat-line for a while, and it is incredibly engaging. Thanks to artist JH Williams III and colorist Dave Stewart, 'Tec #854 features a gorgeous lead story which will undoubtedly reward multiple readings. It too picks up from another storyline, specifically 52's "church of crime" arc; but the references to that arc are explained pretty well (and expanded upon) in the context of this story. Actually, Rucka and Williams are using their first four issues to tell Batwoman's origin story, so her place in the overall timeline won't be any clearer until that arc is over.

Anyway, issue #854 does a great job with both Batwoman and Kate. Williams' work is fairly detailed, but his Batwoman is a combination of black costume, red highlights, and blank white eyes. Without making it sound like I live an excessively sheltered life, I was impressed with the way Williams uses Batwoman's ruby-red lips. Just as her eyes are white voids against the black of her mask, so her lips are isolated against her deathly-pale face. Together with her cascading mane of red hair -- which itself turns into a neat visual joke after Batman makes a crack about it -- those features combine to make Batwoman seductive, scary, kinetic, and generally a joy to watch. (Also, she's comfortable with firearms, which should be interesting whenever she runs into Batman again.) For her part, Kate Kane plays well off her ex-Marine dad, who's also Batwoman's support staff; and a scene where Kate is dumped (because of Batwoman) manages to transcend its familiar origins. As with Batman And Robin, I paid more attention to the creative team's techniques than I did to the continuity mosaic. (It would have been exceptionally hard not to pay attention to Williams' dynamic layouts.)

In short, I really liked this first in-depth look at Batwoman. My expectations were probably affected somewhat by the long interval between 52 and this issue, but I'm not sure whether they were lowered or raised. Either way, it was worth the wait.

I realize I haven't mentioned the co-features in either Streets Of Gotham or Detective, but neither of them ties directly into the Bat-relaunch. In SOG's "Manhunter" (written by Marc Andreyko, penciled by Georges Jeanty, inked by Karl Story), prosecutor Kate Spencer has moved to Gotham, where she's gushed over Commissioner Gordon and reconnected with colleague Barbara Gordon, but other than that she's got her own case to solve. Likewise, "The Question" (in Detective; written by Rucka and drawn by Cully Hamner) is connected to the lead story only by the two characters' longstanding relationship. I enjoyed both co-features, both as complements to their respective leads and as solid shorts in their own right.

* * *

Overall, unlike the current Superman line, the revamped Bat-books aren't really exploring different facets of the same macro-story. So far, half of the line's titles (Batman And Robin, Detective, and Red Robin) are isolated unto themselves, and the other half (Batman, SOG, GCS) appears to be building its own set of interconnections. If I were asked to recommend only one title, honestly it might well be Detective, but it'd be a close call with B&R. The two Dini books seem geared more to longtime readers, with Streets Of Gotham probably the more accessible. (Plus, SOG has "Manhunter.") The regular Batman book looks similarly rooted in existing subplots, although Winick's return and Dick's new perspective may make it more new-reader friendly. Finally, I don't know that anyone but longtime Tim Drake fans will find much in Red Robin.

Generally, though, it's a strong start to the relaunch. This status quo might only last a year, but it looks like it could be a good one.

Hardcore: Reloaded #1

More in Comics