Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Damian: Son of Batman

A significant postscript to the Grant Morrison Batman run, Damian: Son of Batman takes us deeper inside the world of one of the run's key creations. Set, like three other Damian stories, in an alternate future where he goes on to become Batman, DSOB offers a look at what might have been, but was apparently derailed by the death of Damian in Batman, Inc.

We've previously seen Damian as the future Batman in three stories: In Batman #666, Batman #700, and Batman, Inc. vol. 2, #5. These stories and DSOB occupy realities related to one another, but not the same reality. Counting the pre-Flashpoint DCU, and the post-Flashpoint DCU, it's even possible that we have six different continuities in play, seven if you count a brief mention by Morrison of plans he might have gotten around to down the road. This is quite a mess, potentially, that Kubert inherited, and he did nothing to make it neater, establishing several facts that distinguish this world from most of those other continuities, or at least bearing too little connection to dwell upon. Most strikingly, the central role of a deal with the Devil and regenerative powers that came along with that are nowhere to be seen here. There's one hint of the supernatural, but the reality or relevance of that remain unexplained by the end of the fourth issue. The death of Batman shown in the first issue bestows upon Damian a sense of guilt as indicated by Morrison's stories, but the details are apparently quite different.

The major dynamic playing out throughout the series is the question of whether or not Damian will kill his enemies, displeasing his father (again). His decision is made and unmade and made again, to no apparent illumination on his part or ours. Killing is bad, but it sure is handy sometimes. Yes, and?

There are some surprises, with three Batmen, two Jokers, and two Alfreds, with a priest who occupies a confessional booth sporting a secret identity of his own. Kubert's writing is quite strong in general; several scenes have an inventiveness typical of Morrison. As good as his writing is, his art is of course better, identical in every way to the original Damian-future scenario, which was also a Kubert-drawn story. The details in word and picture are both pleasing. What's unsatisfying is the lack of direction. It's hard to identify, besides Damian becoming Batman, where this story is even trying to go. Is there a big bad? Sort of. Is it about transformation? No, Damian is in the same place on the kill-or-not issue as he was at the beginning. Does he avenge the death of Batman? Yes, but there's no satisfaction as the scene plays out.

In fact, the story ends by opening up the possibility of a long run, which ironically does no service to making the run seem worth extending. Damian's an angsty killer of a hero. Yes, and?

Because DSOB occupies a different continuity than the other three future-Damian stories, there's no impact on the story we had been reading. It remains intriguing to imagine what the future interplay between Damian and Doctor Hurt might have been. DSOB shows us a different world, a pretty one of which we have probably seen the last.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Forever Evil #1-4

As a homicidal Superman from an alternate universe rages unstoppably across the pages of a DC company-wide event, he is met by a confident Black Adam, who finds himself easily swatted away and the menacing alternate Superman continues unchecked.

That was a powerful dramatic moment in Forever Evil #3, penned by Geoff Johns. And the same description applies to a powerful dramatic moment in Infinite Crisis #6, penned by Geoff Johns. In the earlier story, the alternate Superman was Superboy Prime; in the more recent one, 7 and a half years later, the alternate Superman was Ultraman. Both stories have a primary menace from Earth Three, and a lot of the same characters on stage for a seven-issue event. One recalls art critic David Quantick's quotation "Pop will eat itself." Maybe Geoff Johns' company-wide events will eat themselves, too.

The New 52, or DCnU, is a reboot of the post-Infinite Crisis universe which began in the very issue I cited above. In many ways, it's a hard reboot, but as an allusion to the Sinestro Corps War (another company-wide event by Geoff Johns) reminds us, major portions of previous history are still in continuity. This messy blend between hard reboot and soft reboot don't improve the reading experience. We're reminded that Batman briefly wore a yellow power ring, but within pages of this, we are shown Catwoman marveling over being invited into the Batcave. Perhaps once that was a shocking moment, but in extremely recent DC history, that was old news. Likewise, to see that Batman had prepared a countermeasure for each member of the JLA was a striking moment back in Mark Waid's JLA story Tower of Babel.

As Forever Evil continues, we see familiar plot devices that are still in continuity, having survived the Flashpoint reboot. We see other familiar plot devices that are "new" to the characters but old to us, and as the two kinds of scene intersperse, I find myself asking if I'm supposed to be thinking "Oh, yeah" or "Hey, wow!" and gradually ceasing to feel invested in the story.

When this story began as Trinity War, I felt like many scenes were excellent, showing us the DCnU in fascinating scenes, with J'onn J'onzz and Shazam confronting Superman for the "first" time. It was clear in these scenes that their meetings were unfolding in very different ways from the previous continuity, and with better characterization this time around. As Trinity War gave way to Forever Evil, there's been less that's in any sense new, and more rehash of old themes.

It doesn't have to be this way. In a sense, the DCnU began in the mid-2000s with Geoff Johns showing succinct flashbacks (in Blackest Night, among other places) to early DC history that took the facts from the 1960s JLA (the same lineup, costumes, and villains) but adding the richer characterization that didn't exist in the 1960s. And so we see egos clashing as several Alpha males (and one Alpha female) had to find a new dynamic where none could dominate the others. This was new. This added something to the lore, making it better. Forever Evil dabbles in adding new things to the lore, but it feels like the tires are stuck in old ruts and will follow the same paths we've been led down before.

Perhaps there is a grander payoff in store. This story began with the destruction of Earth Three. It is hard to overlook the fact that a central element in DC lore, Crisis on Infinite Earths, also began with the destruction of Earth Three. In both cases, a common enemy bent on the destruction of everything that wasn't his destroyed the world of the Crime Syndicate before posing a threat to the worlds of our heroes later on. This itself was a grand thematic gesture, as it was the introduction of Earth Three back in 1964 that gave us the notion of a vast multiverse (and not just a pair of alternate universes).

If Johns is starting off with Earth Three in order to take the older story and reinvent it, with Darkseid now taking a role like that which the Anti-Monitor played before, we may be in the middle chapters of a series of events which will turn into a longer epic that adds to the existing lore instead of merely repeating it. If so, then Forever Evil, at least the earlier portions of it, may be recorded as a doldrum in a grand, memorable story.

If, however, we see in predictable fashion, the Justice Leagues escape from their prison, the forces of Luthor and Batman gradually gain in power before winning a climactic fistfight against the Crime Syndicate, then I'm going to have to question if following this epic was more entertaining than pulling old issues out of my collection to re-read stories that were at least original when they were new.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Batman Zero Year: Batman #24

There is no avoiding the comparison. 2013's Zero Year and 1987's Year One are consecutive tellings of the Batman origin. The latter has a name which twists the first's around cosmetically. They both follow DC's company-wide reboots, to re-pitch Batman as part of a general shuffle, tailoring some facts to suit the new continuity.

This is unfortunate context for Scott Snyder, who hasn't written a bad issue in two years on Batman. The dialogue flows, the action is vivid, and his Bruce/Batman has the combination of compulsion and humanity that all the best renditions of the character have had. But Frank Miller's Year One was nearly flawless, bringing Batman from a stiffer, shallower figure into a new era of deeper characterization seen across the comics universe. Year One portrayed a Batman who was – the word has to be taken with a grain of salt – realer than past version. He had weapons that a real crime fighter might have. His Rube Goldberg schemes sometimes failed, leaving him more than once on the verge of death in Gotham's streets and alleys. We imagined him learning to become the masked demigod that Batman would go on to be.

And Scott Snyder's Batman in Zero Year and the preceding twenty issues also has all of those qualities, but that's not new anymore. The effort is serviceable, providing one readable scene after another, but to what other end? If there's a contribution here, it's in the reordering of certain biographical facts. We see an uncle on the Kane side, but what, besides another small tragedy beside Bruce's two huge tragedies, does this add? We see, in the most striking alteration of the legend, a Gotham which is already beset by masked villains, instead of conventional Mafia-style gangs, when Bruce begins his war. That's different in fact than either film series, the previous continuity, or even the publishing history from 1939, although it remains to be seen if this drives some future intrigue.

The greatest potential contribution seems to be in elevating the Joker in primacy in Batman's universe, putting him right at a time of their mutual origin, which was an element, though handled very differently, of the 1989 movie. Coming as a sequel to the use of the Joker in Snyder's earlier Death of the Family arc, it may bookend the character's role in Batman's past and present. It nicely teases a specific identity for the Joker, then throws that promise away, making the Joker now as before, a mystery for Batman as well as for us.

Zero Year is better than most stories we've seen over the years. But in replacing Year One, it has a tough assignment, one that so far serves as a downgrade. It's good. But it leaves, so far, the former as the classic origin, even if this one defines current continuity.