Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Damned with faint praise: Batman: Odyssey

I’ve been threatening for a while to write an article defending Batman: Odyssey – I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Batman: Odyssey, and I thought I’d defend against most of them. Due to recent events, this seems like a good time. This didn’t go how I’d expected…

But now, I don’t know where I’ve read or seen most of said complaints, or even if I remember what all of them are. I won’t defend against them as much as I expected, and will bring in a few of my own that might even be new.

I will still say, whatever happens, Batman: Odyssey is nowhere near as bad as its reputation. It’s not good – I was never going to say it’s good – but it’s a long way from the worst comic out there. Comics Alliance call it an equivalent of The Room.  To me, it’s more a reverse equivalent of Batman: The Long Hallowe’en; which is an okay comic, but has a rep as an amazingly-amazing awesome comic.

In Support:

Batman: Odyssey includes a lot of detail; not just in the art, but in the writing. That’s something I always appreciate (when it’s done well). For example, Adams bothers to talk about what it’s like to try to hear while on top of a moving train, and mentions the doppler effect. Most creators wouldn’t do that.

Common Objections:

I see a lot of people saying the same things about this comic over and over. Most of them are answerable (which is why I wanted to do this article).

Welcome to my nightmare

They talk about the bad art, and always show that one picture. I mean, they’re not wrong; it is a bad picture – but the fact they almost always cite that same picture is telling: there aren’t that many bad drawings in the comic. (Linkara, see below, thinks the expressions are almost all bad, at least in #1.) There are a few bad drawings, more than you’d want (the blond Robin below is Primus),

Tommy the Cat says ‘hi’

but most of the art is good, even great.

He’s playing with his trains again

This comic has Batman using a gun. It’s an obvious thing do object to, but here’s my defense of it:

This is beginning Batman. He’s clearly just starting out (this might be his first time)

Note the bit about the ‘costumed man in Metropolis’. This will come up later.

and the whole point here is about telling Dick why he doesn’t use guns. (“I won’t be recognized.”)

Okay, okay, that defense never works on me either. Just thought I’d bring it up.

Part of bringing guns into it is that Batman: Odyssey is trying to address why doesn’t Batman kill. It doesn’t do it well, but it tries – and that’s something I appreciate. That may be the whole point of this thing. (It may not. It’s genuinely hard to tell. And, at one point, Batman sides with the people shooting the bad guys and is okay with it:

Batman’s just passed out a bunch of guns

Which leads directly to:

This message approved by Batman.

(For context, Batman is Bruce Wayne; Bat-Man is Bok, who was inspired by him. That dash is a subtle distinction, but it’s enough to tell them apart.)

Hollow Earth

I’ve seen people object to Batman: Odyssey on the grounds that Neal Adams believed in the Hollow Earth theory, and this comic showcases that belief.

First, I’ve spent my entire comics-reading career reading things that contradict my worldview, often created by people who believe what they’re writing; I don’t have the privilege of objecting to things I don’t agree with. I can’t support anyone objecting to a piece of art because they don’t share the creator’s worldview.

Please note: there’s a difference between ‘I don’t like this’ and ‘this is bad’. I can support somebody saying that they enjoy something less because it contradicts their worldview, but not saying ‘this is objectively bad because I don’t believe the same things as the creator’. Not everybody gets that there is a difference, of course; but I’m right here right now writing in defense of a comic that showcases an Ancient Egyptian view of the Afterlife, for example. (While saying the Egyptian gods were mutated clones… whu?!?)

Also, it’s not quite true. I don’t know if this is a time when editorial stepped in or what, but Batman: Odyssey isn’t set in a Hollow Earth – it’s set in a giant geode within the earth. Basically a big cave.

Another common objection I’m sure I’ve seen is to the idea of dinosaur people and living Neanderthals. They’re too weird and fantastic and unrealistic.

Guess what? This comic is fantasy! That sort of thing is why I read comics in the first place! I absolutely will not support that objection.

Linkara:

I looked at Linkara, my favourite comics reviewer, to see if that’s where I’ve been hearing all these objections to the series. It isn’t. He’s covered the first four issues: #1, #2, #3, #4, and hasn’t said a lot of the things I remember (so where did I hear them?!?). It turns out I agree with most of what he has to say about Batman: Odyssey.

There are a few things, though, where I disagree and that I thought I’d bring up to defend Batman: Odyssey.

He points out that Dick is dressed as Tim, which I hadn’t noticed. Linkara’s right, of course. Not everything I’m going to say will be a defense.

Since when is Tim this acrobatic?

At one point, somebody interjects a “Bok!” in the middle of a word balloon; Linkara thinks it’s a chicken impression. It’s actually a character’s name (but you don’t know that at this point in the series).

It turns out I’ve already told you who Bok is in the article.

There’s a scene where Bruce talks about watching The Seven Samurai in slow motion to copy the moves. Linkara seems to assume Bruce watched the whole movie that way. When I read that dialogue, I read it as Bruce watching only the relevant fight scenes slowed down. Why would you even watch the rest that way?

Linkara also wonders what’s going on with Aquaman in #4: but the reader actually gets the context pretty quickly. (To be fair, this is one of the very few times in Batman: Odyssey where you can actually say that.) Also, that’s a stingray, not a manta. Comics Alliance can’t tell the difference either (maybe Linkara had read that article, or Comics Alliance had seen his videos?).

Note the lack of ‘horns’. Manta rays are called ‘devil rays’ for a reason.

Linkara also objects to the way Bruce’s thoughts don’t match his narration. (See the ‘man from Metropolis’ image above, for example.)

My response is, they don’t have to. Bruce telling us about things that barely – probably subconsciously – made it into his thoughts; he’s showing us the rest. We don’t need it all.

Not to mention that the story Bruce is telling is probably not meant to be the same as the flashback we’re seeing. The narration is kind of separate to the proper story, and that’s Bruce’s recollection – but what we see on panel is meant to be the actual events as they played out, as if we’d gone back in time and are seeing it play out in real time. (This is the way I see almost all narrated flashbacks in fiction, by the way.)

Broad Problems:

I wrote this to defend Batman: Odyssey, but I fully admit there are problems with it. Here are some of them:

The speech bubble layout is confusing; it’s hard to figure out which balloon needs to be read first. This story needs an editor! I’ve run across this quite a few times in comics, but the only time I’ve seen anybody talk about it was when a friend asked me for advice on how to read comics pages (I couldn’t answer properly, beyond ‘if the speech balloons are all in one panel, read those balloons together)

Written by Yoda this was.

The story feels like a bunch of random ideas jumbled together. There is little connection between them, and they aren’t put together coherently.

In one issue, Bruce is in the Underworld, then a later issue shows him getting there. It doesn’t feel like a suspenseful in-medias-res storytelling device so much as a printing error where several pages got swapped. This kind of storytelling problem makes Batman: Odyssey an incoherent mess. Bruce says in it, “I tell a good story”. Maybe, Brucey-boy, but you don’t tell it well.

Where do these ideas come from? They’re suddenly important parts of the story, but they were never introduced.

Most of the side characters act off-model; Man-Bat, Talia, Deadman, and Ra’s are badly hit (Linkara pointed out how much this story undermines Ra’s). Deadman, for example, spends most of an issue standing around in Deadspace whining about how nobody is telling Bruce what he needs to hear, but doesn’t seem to even think of possessing somebody to just tell him. They’re all more childish, whiny, and useless than they should be.

Nobody ‘just tells him’ anything ever in this comic.

The fact that Neal Adams co-created most of the characters in question only makes it worse.

My Objections:

I have a few objections of my own that others don’t seem to pick up on.

In the first couple of issues, there’s a scientist who brings his daughter (of about 7) to the docks after hours, probably to check on his hydrogen car he’s getting shipped, or show her the life-sized dinosaur model that’s there. Maybe it’s just because he couldn’t get a babysitter. We’re never told.

The bad guys’ plot hinges on this, even though we’re never given a reason why they’d even know she was going to be there.

And people, including Batman, treat the scientist like he deliberately brought the little girl into a firefight, instead of just bringing her to work. He takes his lumps; but he wasn’t doing anything wrong!

There are a couple of things, like the blood costume and the infamous faceshield and the exploding Robin costume (yes, that’s a thing in Batman: Odyssey) that, as far as I know, have never been used before or since. (I don’t have the most massive Batman collection in the world – I concede that all of these things may have been used. But my collection is big enough that I’d be surprised if I’ve never run into these things before, especially if this costume is a ‘favorite’.) They make this comic more of a fantasy than it should be.

If it’s a ‘particular favorite’, then have we ever seen it anywhere else? Maybe we have.

Yes, I know I said I read comics for fantasy; but I also like consistency. This isn’t Batman-style fantasy. It’s ‘what’s going on here?!?’ style fantasy. This is more like my ‘off-model characters’ objection above than like my ‘dinosaur people are cool’ defense.

I also got sick of the phrase ‘stone killer’ by the end. Linkara looked it up, and it’s apparently a specific term; but it’s still used too much. And it’s never explained as a term. (On the other hand, I just know if they had explained it, they’d have repeated that explanation once per issue, until I was tired of hearing it. So there’s that.)

Misleads:

The entire story is told with a framing device of Bruce talking to a mysterious other character. People who read Batman: Odyssey keep wondering who that character is. (I did, Linkara did, Comics Alliance did.) Spoiler: it’s Clark Kent.

The trouble is, the artwork is actually misleading. In thinking about who it could be, I actually thought Clark Kent at one point – but I rejected that answer based on the evidence.

This whole conversation takes place in the Batcave, with Bruce out of costume, so they know who each other are. There’s no reason to hide their identities from anybody present.

So: first, Bruce says the words: “the costumed man in Metropolis”. To Clark Kent. To the costumed man in Metropolis himself. Huh?!? (See above.)

What, Clark, did you get a splinter?

Second, you see the hands of the POV character, and he’s wearing a band-aid. Why would Clark need to do that? In the Batcave and out of costume? I don’t buy it.

By the time Clark mentions a Pulitzer, it’s in the issue he’s (later) revealed in, and as a reader I felt lied to.

Conclusion

Look, overall, Batman: Odyssey is not a great comic; but there are far worse stories out there in comics land, and some of them have the respect of the masses. The story is interesting and has potential, even if the telling is difficult to follow and the framing devices are unnecessary. I’m not saying I recommend it, but I am saying don’t treat it like it’s the worst thing ever. It’s a long way from that.

4 Comments

  1. conrad1970

    I ‘m not going to go into great detail how much I dislike this comic because I think you’ve covered it pretty well.
    Batman: Odyssey really tarnished my love of Neil Adams Batman work in general, I can’t even read his books from the 70’s without getting distracted and thinking about this travesty.
    Yeah, there are other over-rated storylines that were pretty bad. Long Halloween and Hush, I’m looking at you. But neither were quite as bad as this mess, I think there’s only Millar’s All-Star Batman that can rival this for pure awfulness.

    1. Le Messor

      It’s a shame that this tarnishes his old work for you. I’ve just been rewatching BATTAS and seeing how much influence Adams had on it, which makes that extra sad for me.

      Linkara draws a few parallels to Miller’s ASBAR. But ASBAR has a very big plus for me, personally: I’ve never read it. 🙂

      I agree that Hush is also overrated.

    2. Darthratzinger

      Kevin Smith´s Batman is way way worse. Batman: Odyssey only gave me headaches but The Widening Gyre (I think that was the title, it was so bad, I don´t even want to look it up) repulsed me like few other comic books ever did.

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