Grumpy Old Fan | Riding with ‘Batman Eternal’s’ pilot episode
Although we might reasonably expect a solid dose of black-caped entertainment in each installment of the weekly Batman Eternal, its brain trust has called the first three issues its “pilot episode” — that is, an arc that sets up the premise and introducing key characters and concepts. Therefore, today we’ll take a look at the pilot, plus a few notes on this week’s Issue 4.
Of course, the phrase “pilot episode” comes from television, and Batman Eternal so far feels very much like a TV show. Specifically, it has the feel of a TV show with a season or two under its belt. I say that both because Eternal starts off trading on previous Bat-history and bringing older characters into the New 52 status quo, and because it plunges right into the thick of things, assuming its readers know the basic Batman setup. There are no gratuitous operatic displays of Batman soaring over the skyline, cape billowing in the wind. For that matter, not counting a couple of standard Batman intimidation scenes, and a narrow escape for a returning character (all in Issue 3), the pilot’s big action sequences are confined to the first issue.
What fills out these three issues otherwise is a lot of conversation, devoted mainly to laying out who will be doing what. Cops talk about office and city politics. Batman exposits with Gordon, Alfred and Catwoman. Alfred checks in with the extended Bat-clan.* Reporters discuss the latest big story. Criminals (super and otherwise) plan for what’s coming. To a certain extent this is a function of the overarching plot, and the end of Issue 3 suggests things are going south quickly — but whatever those developments are, Batman Eternal would rather leave them off-screen in favor of people talking about them. To his credit, artist Jason Fabok finds ways to make these discussions visually interesting, mostly by playing with shadows and camera angles. Still, not to spoil Issue 3, but if this were a TV pilot, it’d probably show the carnage and use the dialogue as voice-overs.
That said, Eternal’s first arc is neither dull nor anticlimactic. Overall, the series’ premise is well-suited to its format, and the first three issues are generally successful at establishing that premise. They’re not perfect, but collectively they build to a pretty dire situation that, at this point, seems to justify recruiting all the Bat-people for the better part of a year. Eternal pretty clearly runs with the notion of Gotham City — or, at least, an id-fueled notion of what Gotham should be — “attacking” Batman. Current head Bat-guru Scott Snyder used that to inform the “Court of Owls” storyline. Here, though, that notion on a larger scale allows Eternal to justify its scope and length.
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As he did on Detective Comics, Fabok draws Gotham as a sturdy metropolis, slightly past its prime but hardly falling down, with plenty of texture and detail. With all that architecture to color, Brad Anderson doesn’t stray much beyond the earth tones, and he helps Fabok evoke a fairly claustrophobic setting. Because the overarching story depends greatly on the oppressive quirks of Gotham City itself, these three issues benefit from such an approach. Issue 4 starts an arc drawn by Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs, and while I’m a big fan of theirs, I’m not sure they would have served these particular scripts any better.
Speaking of which, the dialogue flows well and sounds natural, although it’s fairly information-heavy and tends to be very matter-of-fact. One of the few exceptions is an oddly self-aware speech Batman gives Professor Pyg in Issue 1, which starts with “This is the part where I could make a joke about hogtying or blowing your house down.” That’s a very Bronze Age thing for Batman to say, and I’m not sure whether to appreciate it on that level (considering all the terse utterances Bat-writers have penned over the past quarter-century) or to denigrate it for straying from the character’s more recent portrayals. I mean, I appreciate Snyder and/or James Tynion IV having Batman say something I’d have expected Denny O’Neil or Len Wein to have written for him, circa 1978 — but by the same token, it’s not 1978 anymore.
As far as the writers themselves, Batman Eternal is billed very much as a collaboration. The covers list five writers, with Snyder getting top billing. He and Tynion are credited with “story and script” for issues 1-3, while Ray Fawkes, John Layman and Tim Seeley are the pilot’s “contributing writers.” (Layman moves over to script Issue 4, from a story by Snyder and Tynion.) Katie Kubert, a veteran of the Bat-books, is the editor, with newcomer Mark Doyle the group editor. That’s a big team, and it’ll only get bigger as more professionals (like writer Kyle Higgins and Issue 4’s colorist, John Kalisz) come into the mix.
Appropriately enough, Batman Eternal features lots of moving parts. It revolves around a core of relatively minor characters, with Batman and the more familiar faces on the periphery. Among those introduced — or, in most cases, reintroduced — in these three issues are Jason Bard, Vicki Vale and Gotham police officer Jack Forbes. The series’ first “boss” villain is also somewhat familiar, but I’m not spoiling who it is just yet, because that’s the subject of Issue 2.
Therefore, SPOILERS FOLLOW for the first four issues of Batman Eternal:
So far, the biggest problem with Batman Eternal is its inciting moment. Towards the end of issue #1, our pal Commissioner Gordon is chasing a bald-headed mook down a subway line. Perhaps due to supervillain interference, Gordon thinks Baldy — who we learn in Issue 2 is named Derek Grady — is armed; but security-cam footage (and, more importantly, Batman) says he’s not. Thus, when Gordon tries to shoot the gun out of Grady’s hand, the bullet “misses” (Fabok draws it “passing through” the gun) and strikes the power box behind Grady’s head. Meanwhile, two subway trains are headed inexorably for a collision, right in front of the platform where Gordon has Grady pinned down. In short, not only does it look like Gordon killed an unarmed man — which would be bad enough — but by blowing up the power box (which actually killed Grady, not Gordon’s bullet) he has also apparently caused the trains to crash. Since that makes Gordon allegedly responsible for hundreds of deaths, he’s taken into custody.
By itself this seems like a pretty simple mystery to solve. Indeed, right after it happens Gordon himself says the power box a) shouldn’t have exploded like it did, and b) has nothing to do with controlling the trains. Even Batman stories have to bow to basic transportation engineering, right?
We may never know, because the subway crash is just a pretext to get Gordon out of the way. In a fairly predictable development, Mayor Hady appoints Forbes — a sneering cad who lacks only a mustache to twirl — as Gordon’s replacement. From the moment we see him, Forbes is a hissable plot device; so once he’s commissioner, he promptly orders the GCPD to lay off trying to stop the crook-on-crook violence, and announces “Gotham City’s war on Batman.” Seems Carmine “The Roman” Falcone — the guy Issue 2 built up — is back in town after Batman and Catwoman chased him away five years ago; and he wants things to go back to the days before super-criminals were the face of Gotham crime. Hady is in the Roman’s pocket, and as Forbes talks about the old days like they’re a bottle of Dos Equis and he’s the Most Interesting Man in the World, he’s all too happy to join up.
That brings up the second biggest problem with Batman Eternal — namely, Carmine “The Roman” Falcone. The Roman would have fit better into this storyline if it weren’t part of the New 52. Instead, with Snyder and Greg Capullo having spent most of the past year revising Batman’s origins — and as yet, not leaving much room for the Roman — his presence not only raises continuity questions, it undermines his reveal. Besides, even if he’s only an appetizer, the Roman is pretty far down the list of terrifying Bat-foes. I can understand not wanting to trot out recently used villains like Talia, the Riddler or the Joker (although the Penguin gets involved as of Issue 3), but someone like the Scarecrow, Black Mask or Hugo Strange might have had better name recognition and might have fit better into the revised timeline. Heck, it would have been a good opportunity to bring back Two-Face, which itself would have given Eternal another mini-mystery. Batman Begins may have raised Falcone’s profile, but I suspect those readers not asking “… who?” may be wondering how much of “Year One” still controls.
Falcone aside, the ambition of Eternal’s main conflict still makes it scary. Falcone, Forbes and the gutless Hady intend to turn back the clock by restoring the mechanics of old, corrupt, pre-Batman Gotham. This means re-corrupting the police and the government, and driving out super-folks of all stripes. Needless to say, this is not exactly a sustainable strategy for governing — although it does offer a blanket excuse for the mistakes those officials might make — but as a power grab, it’s simple and direct. Imagine all of Gotham’s most primal, brutal impulses brought back into the open and given free reign. It’s the dark opposite of all the “people power” movements the real world has seen over the past few years. Moreover, because it’s rooted in the human architects of Gotham’s not-so-distant past (which actually works better under the New 52 timeline, because it’s not as far off), it resonates more than the top-down supervillainy of Forever Evil or Batman Incorporated’s Leviathan. By the time the public learns about what subway-platform power boxes can and can’t do, and the outcry against Gordon starts to ebb, it may be too late.
As befits such a sweeping saga, the first three issues feature a lot of characters, suggesting that several different storylines may play out against the larger gang-war backdrop. Issue 1 focuses on Jason Bard, the Gordon recruit who’ll have to contend with Forbes’ iron-fisted rule; Issue 2 shines a brief spotlight on Gotham Gazette reporter Vicki Vale; and Issue 3 brings us the first chronological glimpse of Stephanie Brown in proper continuity. Other teases include the demonic Deacon Blackfire and Doctor Phosphorus possibly facing someone who (as Caleb pointed out) sure seems a lot like Jim “The Spectre” Corrigan. Meanwhile, the supervillains are organizing themselves: One little band includes Cluemaster, Firefly, Signalman and maybe Lock-Up; while the Penguin gives orders to an array of even more minor villains (the New 52 creations Imperceptible Man, Mr. Mosaic, Hypnotic and Mr. Combustible).
While it’s hard to tell from just a single issue, the Batgirl-centric arc that begins in this week’s Issue 4 may give us some clues about how Eternal’s writers and editors will manage everything. Batgirl’s analysis of the subway’s passengers turns up a suspect, but Batman discounts it, perhaps because he’s working on beating down the Roman. Meanwhile, Gordon’s denied bail (by a judge on the take?) and sent to Blackgate Prison to await trial. There’s more contempt from Forbes, for anyone who missed it from last week; and Stephanie Brown tries to find a safe haven after escaping her dad’s clutches. In other words, not much movement beyond Batgirl’s involvement. I’m guessing the new suspect will be one of this arc’s main products, and Stephanie’s fate may be another; but this could just end up giving another creative team time to produce the next big set of developments. (When I used to watch soap operas in the ‘80s, that’s what Tuesdays and Thursdays were for.) Still, it’s good to see Nguyen and Fridolfs back on a main-line Bat-title.**
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Ultimately I think the three-issue “pilot episode” does what it needs to do, in terms of setting the table for the series as a whole. The idea of Batman having to rebuild his relationships with the city’s political infrastructure — if not, in some metaphysical way, with the city itself — is intriguing, and while the spectacle of “Batman versus everybody” has been done several times before, this take seems fairly original.
Really, it makes me wonder whether, after it goes on a “brief hiatus” next March, Batman Eternal might somehow supplement or even replace some of the minor Bat-titles we’ve seen over the years. Currently there are three main Bat-books (Batman, Detective, and Batman and Robin), with four others (Batgirl, Batwoman, Batwing, and Catwoman) set in Gotham and the rest (like the “ex-Robin” books and Birds Of Prey) not necessarily tied to the city. I don’t see DC canceling any of the three main Bat-titles anytime soon, but the other Gotham-based books could conceivably be folded into an ongoing Eternal series. Given what Batman #28’s flash-forward revealed about Catwoman, I’m particularly curious to see how Eternal interacts with Selina’s own title.
Naturally, that last also applies to the other Bat-books. I’m guessing Eternal takes place after Forever Evil, but so far the rest of the Bat-line seems to be telling pre-Eternal stories. When and how they sync up — especially the Robin-related developments set for July and beyond — may be a little rocky for both Eternal and the ongoing series.
Granted, those concerns are a little further down the road. Batman Eternal’s more immediate tasks are to keep focusing on its core subplots, and keep building to the nightmare vision shown on the first page of Issue 1. The pilot episode sets up a workable scenario for an extended Batman epic, but “Batman versus everybody” could also describe a pretty involving video game. Eternal already contains a number of mysteries, from the mechanics of the crash to the identity of the story’s final villain (Catwoman would make a lot of sense, and I could see DC allowing it), but it must keep balancing those with the city’s continued descent into mob-encouraged chaos. Batman Eternal promises a lot of headaches for our heroes, and there’s plenty more that can go wrong in Gotham City. Let’s hope we readers aren’t similarly frustrated.
* [This apparently includes Batwoman, which when I first read it was kind of a shock, considering her well-established distance from the rest of Gotham’s vigilantes. However — SPOILERS for Batwoman Annual #1, out this week — in light of the Annual’s fallout, it’s a little less surprising that Batwoman has been given access to “Penny-One.”]
** [I do miss Batman: Li’l Gotham, though; and I hope Nguyen and Fridolfs get to use that watercolor-y style on another Bat-book.]