I wanted to like this more than I did. But I still like it.
First, the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie was a huge moment for Batman, comics, and comic-book movies. It also was a cultural phenomenon.
Second, Sam Hamm wrote at the time that movie came out one of my favorite Batman comic-book stories, which is “Blind Justice,” drawn by the excellent Denys Cowan and appearing in Detective Comics #598-600 (March-May 1989).
Third, comics seem like the obvious way to revisit this version of Batman and continue it in a way that didn’t happen on the big screen. And maybe that will happen if this series does well enough to warrant additional comics that could bring all this to fruition.
But this series had a lot of ups and down.
First of all, the plot. This series is set after Batman Returns, and picks up the setup from Batman of Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. Batman fans know that Dent’s the incorruptible Gotham City district attorney who’s rise to stardom is tragically ended by an attack that leaves half his face horribly scarred. This splits his personality, and he becomes the duality obsessed Two-Face. Many of us expected a Batman sequel would feature Billy Dee as Two-Face, and were disappointed when the movies went another way.
The other element everyone expected from Batman sequels was the introduction of Robin. And while Batman Forever featured both Two-Face and Robin, it wasn’t the Tim Burton version and it wasn’t the Sam Hamm version. This version of Robin is pretty different — kind of a mixup of Jason Todd and Tim Drake with a fair bit of originality thrown into it. I also really liked the visuals on this version of Robin. It might not have worked in a movie, but it’s pretty cool looking in the comic. There’s also an introduction for Barbara Gordon, and hints of where her character could have gone.
So that’s what we get here with the six-part “Shadows,” with art by Joe Quinones, colors by Leonardo Ito, and letters by Clayton Cowle.
“Shadows” reads like a movie, and it very much feels like it could have been the follow-up to Batman Returns. This evokes that world very well. And while Quinones obviously worked under restrictions regarding the likenesses of the actors, he does a great job evoking Michael Keaton’s version of Bruce Wayne, as well as Billy Dee as Harvey, Michael Gough as Alfred, and Michele Pfieffer as Selina Kyle.
Where this story runs into trouble for me is in the specifics of the storytelling. The scripting is heavy at times, and dialog that would work coming via actors using their talents just clogs up the comic book page. Visually, the storytelling is choppy and often difficult to follow. There are dream sequences that are difficult to realize are dream sequences until you’re so confused by the reversion to reality you realize that’s the only explanation for what you’ve just tried to read.
The plot also is a bit convoluted and difficult to follow at times, though I will say the ending of this story in issue #6 is one of its real strong points. That’s rare for comics, and it made me want to read more of this.
This book also has one of the problems of the movies: Not enough action. There’s a lot of talking and a lot of plot, but at no point does it open up and breathe with a big Batman moment — a chase, a fight, a big set piece. In 1989, we accepted that approach because being too ambitious with that kind of thing in the days before digital visual effects usually resulted in abject failure and being laughed out of the theater. It was better to have more plot and a few moments of wow than none of the former and plenty of bad takes on the latter.
But this is comics. And it would have been great to see the kind of action we longed to see in this version of Batman finally take place.
The final batch of first issues in DC’s New 52 arrived Monday this week instead of Wednesday. I’ve already read a few that I quite like, but I have to wait until tomorrow because of the embargo. That leaves me with today to catch up and go through all of last week’s books, which contained more than its fair share of bombshells.
FYI, due to some of the topics that came up in this week’s books, the language used below may not be suitable for all ages. Proceed at your own risk.
Top book on the pile is Wonder Woman #1, by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. As you might expect from Chiang, the book looks great and is well colored with an appropriately moody palette by Matthew Wilson. The story is a pretty significant deviation from the typical Wonder Woman story, getting into an area I think you could call occult, except it deals with Greek mythology so maybe that’s a better way to describe it. But it is darker in tone and look that the shiny, bright take on Wonder Woman that has prevailed over the years at DC. I’m not sure how effective this is as a first issue, however, because not much is explained. Diana doesn’t even appear until halfway through the issue, where she’s found sleeping naked (though covered) in a London flat. It’s not clear what the set up is, who she’s supposed to be or how she’s intended to fit into the world. I think Azzarello and Chiang have a bit more leeway based on their reputation to get things going in the next couple of issues, and this was much better than the Odyssey revamp of last year. So, this is promising.
Dick Grayson gets his old costume and book back with Nightwing #1, which was a competent if completely average superhero comic. The art by Eddy Barrows and J.P. Mayer is nice, and I enjoyed the scenes where Dick returns to the circus he grew up in to say hi to his friends. I don’t know if anyone has ever done that idea before, but I thought it was a nice touch here. The superhero-ing part of the book was less thrilling, and I really wish the industry would institute a ban on the hero narrating the story in captions. That was interesting and effective in 1982 when Chris Claremont popularized it on the first Wolverine miniseries, but it’s been overused to death. How about having characters talk to each other once in a while? It might be a good trend to start.
I really wanted to like DC Universe Presents #1, featuring the first part of a new Deadman story by Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang. It almost completely won me over, too, because this is a good character and Jenkins does some interesting things with it. But somehow it just didn’t cross the finish line and I’m not entirely sure why. The art’s well done, though not as stylish as I remember Chang’s art being in the past. Maybe it’s just that a character called Deadman is a bit of a downer, and this needed a bit of brightness in it to keep it from just being dim.
Batman #1 is one of the slickest releases so far, and I mean that in a good way. Scott Snyder writes a really good Batman, and this debut pulls in a lot of elements and kicks off a pretty good mystery. It also looks fantastic, with Greg Capullo on pencils bringing just a hint of Todd McFarlane-style cartoonyness that recalls, for me, the much-beloved Batman: Year Two arc of 25 years ago. It’s slickly polished by inker Jonathan Glapion and the result is a book that any Batman fan, old or new, should be able to get behind.
Green Lantern Corps #1 was surprisingly violent, which is not something I expect from this particular franchise. It’s all in service to the buildup of the story to introduce a very serious and grave threat to the Corps that should make a nice backdrop for the lead characters of Guy Gardner, John Stewart and Kilowog to tackle. It was the character stuff that I most liked about this issue, even though it didn’t make much sense to me. I don’t see why Guy wants a full-time coaching job, when he seems too busy as a Green Lantern to even begin to fulfill that role well. I have a soft spot for both Guy and John, so this may turn out to be the GL series for me if they can keep it up.
Blue Beetle #1 is a complete reboot of the most-recent version of the character, the Jaime Reyes one. This is a typical origin story, that establishes where the Blue Beetle power comes from, how it gets to Earth and how it ends up affecting Jaime. Not having read the previous Blue Beetle series, I don’t know how different this is from what was done there. It’s OK, kind of the typical high school stuff comics readers have known and loved since Peter Parker was a lonely student at Midtown High, though with a Latino flavor and set in Texas. The art by Ig Guara is solid, and it works OK as a comic book but does nothing to really elevate it past pure middle-of-the-road mediocre to must-read level.
Captain Atom #1 is at about the same level as Blue Beetle. It’s a competent setup for a series, but offers nothing really new to set it apart. The script by J.T. Krul takes no real risks with a character that you could do just about anything with. And Freddie Williams III’s art is surprisingly sketchy, which I think is the wrong style for this character, who I think would work better with a clean, technical look. I can’t help but compare this to the recent Dark Horse run of Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom, as the good Doc and Captain Atom are very similar characters, and while neither sets the world on fire Captain Atom seems the lesser of the two.
OK, now things get interesting with the awful Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, by Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort. This was another of those titles that, being brand now, I hoped would offer something surprising and different. Instead, we get the most juvenile, pandering book of the bunch. The book starts with Red Hood, a.k.a. the former Robin known as Jason Todd, breaking out Red Arrow from a prison. Hood’s aided by Starfire, formerly of the New Teen Titans, and the three of them sit on a beach, have sex and agree to team up for some outlaw-ish “jobs,” the first of which goes wrong. This book got a lot of deserved criticism for its portrayal of Starfire as a super-hot amnesiac who’ll fuck anyone who asks, while Red Hood and Red Arrow act like Jersey Shore castoffs who are drinking and high-fiving each other over getting to fuck Starfire like they’re on spring break. Now, I get that there are a lot of young men and boys in the DC target range who act like this or would like to act like this. And there’s no denying that a lot of this kind of skeevy behavior on the part of the guys and the girls goes on in frat houses and at spring break bashes every year. But the appropriateness of this in a DC Comic rated “T for Teen” is at least questionable. But the biggest problem by far is the degradation of Starfire. This is a character who, in the original New Teen Titans comics, was certainly a bit voluptuous, but also was far from stupid or casual. Her romance with Dick Grayson developed convincingly over time and turned out to be quite sweet, normal and responsible for folks in their late teens. I remember what a scandal it was when a single panel implied Dick and Starfire shared a bed, and how much smoothing of ruffled feathers writer Marv Wolfman had to do to defend that idea. The other thing that strikes me is that the best-known version of Starfire would be from the animated Teen Titans series, in which she was a skinny, sweet, kind of shy girl. Anyone who likes or expects either version of the character is going to be horrified to see Starfire so blatantly turned into a walking, talking fuck toy for a pair of quite unlikable characters for whom it’s apparently OK to be assholes because they’re “outlaws.” I don’t know how much blame to lay at the feet of Rocafort, who is a terrific artist, because I don’t know how much of a say he had in the story. The book does look nice and he draws a very sexy fantasy girl. But the overall package is just one that makes me think there’s no point to this title than to be shocking, stupid and quite insulting to readers of all ages and genders.
Birds of Prey is a title that I’ve tried and read for short stints a number of times in its long run. The idea is great, the title is great, but I’ve always found it never quite achieved the scale it needs to be the megahit it could and probably should be. Birds of Prey #1 does nothing to change that assessment, though it definitely rises above the middle of the crop. This is a new version of the Birds team, with Black Canary still in charge but, with Oracle now back in the Batgirl costume, the team now includes Poison Ivy, Katana and what appears to be a new character called Starling. Not every team member appears in this first issue from writer Duane Swierczynski, but Black Canary’s character and the intro of Starling are compelling enough to hold the center. There’s some good action in here too. And I like the art, by Jesus Saiz, though I would like a little more detail and coloring that’s less dark.
Supergirl #1 is one of my favorites from this week. It offers a compelling introduction for Kara from writers Michael Green (of the Green Lantern movie) and Mike Johnston, and some very stylish art from Mahmud Asrar and Dan Green. Most of this issue is a big fight scene, with Supergirl discovering her powers and kicking some serious ass, and it’s quite well done and a lot of fun to read. The finale, in which Superman arrives, makes me think it was a mistake for DC to publish Superman #1 in the final week of September, as he’s appeared as a cameo in a number of other issues now without his new status quo having really been established. Either way, this was a fun one.
Legion of Super-Heroes #1 is very much standard-issue Legion. I’ve tried a couple times to get into the Legion, but either I’m not finding the good stuff or it’s just not my cup of tea. The stuff I have read that I like is very similar to this story, from Legion veteran Paul Levitz and artist Francis Portella. I don’t know if this has any appeal to new readers, but I imagine it’ll make the Legion’s many fans happy.
Lastly, we have the other bombshell of the week in Catwoman #1, the climactic scene of which caused a huge outcry because, well, it shows Batman and Catwoman rather explicitly having sex. Thankfully, DC upped the rating on this one to Teen +, so those 12-15 year olds won’t be exposed to it. Before I talk about the sex scene, I’ll talk about the rest of the issue, which I thought was decent. Catwoman has always been a sexualized character, from the old comics to the 1960s TV show to Batman Returns and, I’m sure, in the upcoming movie The Dark Knight Rises. It’s part of her appeal, that she’s a villain who’s also so tempting in many different ways to Batman. She’s often been shown as willing to use her sex appeal to get what she wants, again it’s part of the modus operandi. I think a non-sexy Catwoman would be a boring Catwoman.
The specifics of the way writer Judd Winick and artist Guillem March try convey that she’s sexy are questionable. Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance wrote an excellent piece and explained why she had a problem with the character’s face not appearing until the third page while the first two were full of closeups of her cleavage and butt. I get the point but I don’t think there was any malice in it — it’s a common technique that only becomes an especially notable backfire when you get to the end of this issue.
The final scene consists of Batman showing up at Catwoman’s place, they fight and the fight slowly turns to stripping off gloves and clothes and a particularly creepy final splash page of them seemingly in coitus. This crosses a whole bunch of lines that it would have been best to not cross, and there’s a lot of reasons for disliking it from the general distaste of having to think about things like Batman’s erect penis penetrating Catwoman (a sentence no one with taste ever wanted to hear uttered) to what it says about how DC’s creators view women.
I think the relationship between Batman and Catwoman should remain a kind of tense, will they or won’t they thing. The conflict for Batman is that he’s attracted to her but she’s a thief, and for him to give in on this and either let himself be seduced or use his costume and cape and resources for the mundane purpose of getting laid is beneath him. I think it’s less problematic for Catwoman, who always has used sex and has a more flexible morality than other characters. I know Catwoman has been recast from being a straight villain to a kind of anti-hero in the past 25 years, but it’s that conflict and that ability she has to operate in these murky areas that define the character. Which doesn’t mean I think it’s good for her character to be portrayed having sex with Batman in such detail. It’s just gross, and I thought so just as much a few years ago when Frank Miller and Jim Lee did a scene in All-Star Batman where the Caped Crusader has sex with Black Canary on a rainy pier at the Gotham harbor. I also remember hearing morning zoo deejays making fun of the scene in the 1989 Batman movie where Bruce and Vicki have sex. The joke was something along the line of what kind of sound effect will appear on the screen (a la the 1960s TV show’s infamous “Biff!” “Pow!” “Pop!”) and thinking they weren’t wrong. They were assholes, and one of them may have been Glen Beck, but they weren’t entirely wrong. And the X-Force: Sex and Violence miniseries of a few years back in which Domino made explicit references about wanting to or having given Logan a blowjob were not sexy, just icky.
It’s OK to imply sex — even casual sex — between characters if it works for the characters and the story, but this kind of explicitness with these two characters violates all common sense and good taste, and denigrates all the work involved. And it’s a shame, because I think without the sex scene, this was shaping up to be an OK comic book. But instead it’s something to denounce and decry and get upset about.
Tomorrow: The beginning of the end of the New 52 launch month! Superman! Aquaman! Blackhawks!