Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
While DC Comics sacrificed some bragging rights in 2011 when it rebooted its superhero line, even the never-before-renumbered Action Comics and Detective Comics, one consequence of relaunching TEC was that it was only a matter of time — 26 months, to be exact — before the company got around to publishing a new Detective Comics #27. And that the second Detective Comics #27 would see release during the 75th year of Batman’s career, well, all the better.
The first Detective Comics #27, published in 1939, was, of course, the first appearance of Batman. The anthology’s cover was surrendered to an arresting image of a spooky man in tights, wearing a bat-mask and sporting huge bat-like wings, scooping up a gangster in a headlock while swinging in front of the yellow field above a city skyline. “Starting this issue,” the cover trumpted, “The Amazing and Unique Adventures of The Batman.” Inside, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s pulp- and film-inspired detective hero cracked the “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and the amazing and unique adventures begun therein have yet to cease.
DC has honored that milestone in various ways over the years, with notable celebrations including Michael Uslan and Peter Snejbjerg’s 2003 Elseworlds one-shot Batman: Detective No. 27, and 1991’s Detective Comics #627, in which the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle and Marv Wolfman/Jim Aparo creative teams did their own takes on “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and both the original story and a 30th-anniversary version by Mike Friedrich and Bob Brown were reprinted.
This week brings Detective Comics (Vol. 2) #27, and another opportunity to celebrate that original issue, and Batman’s 75th anniversary, which DC does in a 90-page, prestige-format special issue — essentially a trade paperback with some ads in it — featuring contributions from the writers of all four of the main Batman books of the moment and about as strong a list of contributing artists as a reader could hope for.
In general, it’s an excellent package, and a pretty good value — sure, eight bucks is a lot for a comic, but considering some 22-page books cost half of that these days, that’s pretty hard to beat. And there’s enough talent in here that it’s hard to imagine any fan of Batman comics for any length of time not finding something to their liking in here. Or, more likely, a whole lot of things to their liking.
Let’s look at them all one by one, shall we?
COVERS AND PIN-UPS
Regular Batman artist Greg Capullo provides the cover, an evocative if somewhat generic image of Batman in silhouette, standing on a gargoyle, and looking up at the Bat-signal shining on a cloudy night sky (as for why Capullo didn’t try an homage to the original TEC #27‘s cover, he’s actually already worked one into an issue of the “Zero Year” arc in Batman). The table of contents lists additional variant covers penciled by Chris Burnham, Tony S. Daniel, Jason Fabok, Jim Lee and Frank Miller, of which only the latter really stands out as particularly arresting, although perhaps not for the right reasons (it’s a wraparound cover featuring a Catwoman, in a costume of Miller’s own design, on all fours).
Sprinkled throughout the issue are pin-ups from Pat Gleason (the Batman and Robin artist, working in a nearly unrecognizable retro style in order to depict the original Batwoman and Bat-Mite, among others), Jock (Snyder’s collaborator on the first arc of his pre-Batman run on TEC), Kelley Jones (one of the most highly stylized artists to ever draw Batman, having a healthy run as a cover artist and as the interior artist on Batman, in addition to a string of Elseworlds projects with Doug Moench), Graham Nolan (who had an excellent run on TEC with writer Chuck Dixon in the ’90s) and, finally, Mike Allred (whose best-known Batman work is probably the Batman ’66 covers). Of these, none are particularly exceptional pieces, and each creator has definitely done better Batman work elsewhere, but they’re all nice shout-outs of sorts to various Batman artists (Norm Breyfogle and Tim Sale seem somewhat conspicuous in their absence, though, and either artist, or Bruce Timm, seem, more “deserving” of a page in here than, say, Jock).
“The Case of the Crime Syndicate” by Brad Meltzer and Bryan Hitch
This is probably the most surprising creative team involved, and the most predictable but appropriate inclusion of a storyline in the book. Meltzer and Hitch essentially do what Wolfman and Aparo and Grant and Breyfogle did before them, offering a cover version of the first Batman story — this one looking like it’s probably meant to be in New 52 continuity, but might not line up quite perfectly with what Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are doing in “Year Zero.”
Meltzer expands on the rather simple plotline by having Bruce Wayne/Batman narrate, offering the reasons he became Batman, but rather than providing a single one, he simply has Batman put forward what must be dozens of reasons, some of which are contradictory, at a pace of about one per panel. It’s a big, obvious way of getting the point across, but then, Batman comics aren’t exactly the place for subtlety anyway.
I was bemused to see that, in the years since Identity Crisis, Meltzer still loves using multiple levels of narration in the same panel, distinguished by different colors of boxes — regardless of how garbled it reads. Here he puts Batman’s “thoughts” in gray boxes with a Bat-symbol, and also has Batman’s thoughts appearing in white narration boxes in a different font in the same panels (the second-to-last panel explains that the white boxes are Batman’s journal entries, so the gray boxes are his narration. .. or what would appear in thought bubbles, if thought bubbles were still used). Also, some panels feature Batman’s dialogue, too, so the same character is communicating information to the reader in three different ways simultaneously.
Hitch’s detailed, realistic artwork has never been my favorite, but it’s certainly good, and it was nice to see him get to tell a whole story like this, as much of his work with DC’s characters has been somewhat limited. (By the way, if you missed it, Kiel Phegly spoke to Meltzer about his contribution last week).
“Old School” by Gregg Hurwitz and Neal Adams
The Batman: The Dark Knight writer teams up with the classic — and still drawing — Batman artist for a meta-story celebrating the character’s evolution, as the Caped Crusader pursues a criminal through a hall of mirrors in which he sees reflections of himself from various eras, and then he and Robin chase villains from one interpretation of Batman to the next.
The story allows Adams to draw Batman and all of the Bat-villains he wants (as did Adams’ recent contribution to Batman: Black and White), and to imitate the style of other artists, including Frank Miller, which isn’t something one might expect an artist with such a idiosyncratic style as Adams to excel at, but he acquits himself remarkably well (with a great deal of help from colorist John Kalisz, who imitates the coloring conventions of different eras just as admirably). There seem to be minor art mistakes in a pair of panels when Robin peels off his classic costume and refers to his “fancy new costume,” which features Tim Drake’s tunic, but keeps the original costume’s R-logo, cape and shorts.
“Better Days” by Peter J. Tomasi and Ian Bertram
The writer of the title formerly known as Batman and Robin tells the second consecutive story explicitly referencing Batman’s 75th birthday, although in this story it’s Bruce Wayne’s actual birthday. He gathers with the rather elderly Alfred, Commissioner Barbara Gordon and the gray-at-the-temples Nightwing, Red Robin and Batman Damian Wayne (in his Batman #666 costume) in the Batcave for cake, but when the Bat-Signal goes off, the crime-fighters take a break to answer the call.
It’s a sweet story, but perhaps most notable for Bertram’s excellent artwork, which features the big, thick figures and wide-open spaces of Frank Quitely, while also evoking the work of Chris Burnham and even a touch of Rafael Grampa, but not seeming imitative of any of them. It may just be the best-looking story in a comic full of great and accomplished artwork, and I would love to see more of Bertram’s Bat-people in the future.
“Hero” by Francesco Francavilla
This is a four-page story in which Batman rescues a woman and a little boy from a car accident. The artwork is, of course, excellent, but I’m afraid I didn’t get it. I think the little boy was supposed to be James Gordon Jr., but the “Five Years Ago” tag confused me. Hitting stores the same week as a new issue of Afterlife With Archie, TEC #27 wasn’t really the best place to go for Francavilla art anyway, but it’s certainly always a welcome sight. Check out this post for an image from the book, and Francavilla’s blog for still more.
“The Sacrifice” by Mike Barr and Guillem March
Another super-short story, this one penned by the writer who, of all of those included in this book, was the first to write Batman. This five-pager is of a sort readers will be familiar with, but it’s so short and inconsequential that it makes for an interesting riff. The Phantom Stranger shows Batman what his life would’ve been like if his parents hadn’t been killed, and while it’s true that Bruce Wayne gets to lead a more normal, happier life, it’s no surprise the rest of Gotham City, and the world, is in really rough shape without Batman.
“Gothtopia” by John Layman and Jason Fabok
The longest story by far, this 27-pager by the regular TEC creative team is labeled “Gothtopia Part 1 of 3″ on the title page, but, on the last page, there’s a slug saying to “Follow the GOTHTOPIA storyline in …” and then lists four other books from the Batman line; this, apparently, is going to be akin to “Night of the Owls” and “Death of the Family,” then — a Batman story that takes place in a single Batman title, but that features less-essential, optional tie-ins throughout much of the lower-selling parts of the line.
That’s probably bad news if you’re enjoying any of the Batman spinoffs like, say, Batwing or Catwoman, however, because it’s not very good.
The basic premise is that suddenly Batman’s life is pretty much perfect: He and Selina Kyle are partners in crime-fighting and in romance; Gotham City has the lowest crime rate in the country; and he and his allies can work openly during the daytime, even receiving medals for their work. In fact, things are almost too perfect, and the last page reveals why: Batman is being manipulated by The Scarecrow and several other Bat-villains with their doctorates to think all is well, while in the real world he’s in the clutches of his foes! (Fabok’s staging of the last page makes it unclear whether Catwoman, and thus Batman’s other allies, are also being similarly manipulated, or if the whole storyline, tie-ins included, will be taking place in Batman’s head.)
It’s the details of the story that seem not quite thought through, which is really too bad, because it’s often quite fun to see slightly altered versions of characters like these.
So Batman is still called Batman and still dresses like a giant bat, but, for some reason, he wears an all-white costume, instead of his traditional black or even his old blue-and-gray combo or, you know, any color a bat might actually be in nature — brown or gray, for example.
Catwoman is now called “Catbird,” but instead of dressing like a bird (“catbird” being an informal name given to some songbirds), she dresses like Catwoman … only with a tight red blouse on and a long coat with yellow lining, suggesting to the reader Robin. This is a fantasy, though; couldn’t she still be Catwoman? Or Batwoman? Or Robin? Or Huntress?
It gets worse. Barbara Gordon now goes by “Bluebelle,” but instead of dressing like a flower, she dresses in an all-white Batgirl costume, with a blue bat-symbol. She’s partnered with Batwoman, who here wears yellow and blue and goes by the name — and I am not making any of this up — “Brightbat.” There’s also Flying Fox, who looks like he is probably the Gothtopia version of Batwing and, actually, is a pretty great name compared to the rest of these guys; The Gothamite, who looks like he could be either Nightwing or Talon, but probably the latter; and Bluebelle’s team, The Wings of Truth, who look like the Birds of Prey in all-white costumes.
It’s all so weird, but weird in a, “Hey, this isn’t a very good idea for a superhero name or costume” sort of way than what the rest of the story seems to be going for.
I’m not a huge fan of Fabok’s artwork either, although it’s a style thing more than a technical thing. He draws fine and has his fans, but given all of the highly stylized artists he’s sharing space with in this book, his work can’t help but look somewhat generic, like a sort of default DC house style among all the fun and different art in these pages.
“Twenty-Seven” by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy
Batman writer Snyder teams with his collaborator on The Wake for another alternate-future story of Batman, this one featuring a 10-generation dynasty of Batmen, created by cloning rather than by passing the mantle on to any former Robins or a biological successor. It’s only 12 pages, which is just enough time for Snyder to lay out his idea and show an essential trait of the Batman, one often overlooked in favor of more dramatic and melodramatic traits — his innate desire to help others — while giving Murphy plenty of time to go crazy filling up a futuristic Batcave with vehicles, costumes, monuments to new allies and enemies and even a different prehistoric monster robot trophy (a megalodon, apparently) and show us different future Batmen, Robins and villains (here are Batman and a white, female Robin in what look like transforming Robotech suits, here’s Batman with a black, male Robin on flying skateboards, etc).