Since Julie and I are both working during the quarantine lockdown, and we are generally homebodies, our lives have not been too terribly disrupted by the pandemic…at least, not in terms of the action of our daily lives. The worry and existential dread hanging over everything, on the other hand, can get really debilitating.
But even that level of anxiety is something I’ve been dealing with since the age of five; growing up in a home with raging alcoholic parents, constant dread is just something you assimilate into your lifestyle. When you know things can go to hell unexpectedly without warning at ANY MOMENT, you evolve coping mechanisms, some healthy, some not. I like to think I’ve dispensed with the unhealthy ones for the most part.
One I’ve never lost, though, is diving into escapist entertainment. It’s how I became such a huge Batman fan…. when I was a little kid essentially trapped in a hostage situation, both at home and at school, it always made me feel better somehow to know that, at least in Gotham City, there was a guy who was making sure everything was fair (fairness was not something I got a lot of in real life, and to this day unjust treatment of anyone is a huge red button for me) and vulnerable people were protected.
Batman had the strong moral center I longed to see from adults and never got, AND he was tough enough to hand bullies and creeps the beatdown they deserved. I’ve never really lost my affection for the Bat guy in the five decades or so since then. And when I crave something escapist, it tends to be Batman comics I reach for first.
So, given recent events, I have to admit I have indulged in a little retail therapy, and it’s overwhelmingly been Batman-related. A lot of it has been remaindered collections of relatively recent Bat comics I haven’t seen, and the rest have been new trades of old comics I have a great deal of fondness for that haven’t been available in book collections until now. (The eventual goal is to get all the comics here in trade and dump the longboxes of single issues; it’s an ongoing project I sort of pick at.)
That’s the preamble, for those of you who missed last week’s installment. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the pile of newly-acquired Batman books.
We’ll start with the one that’s kicked up a fair amount of dust online this week. Batman and the Outsiders: Lesser Gods, from Bryan Hill and Dexter Soy.
I picked this up on a whim, because I ran across a copy of the paperback that cost less than any single issue of the comic it’s collecting. I hadn’t heard much about this one at all, and I honestly thought it was a new incarnation of the James Tynion reboot of Detective that came with DC’s Rebirth; Batman recruiting a superteam of misfits for a specific mission. I enjoyed Tynion’s run quite a bit. Plus I always want to like a Batman and the Outsiders title. I have tremendous affection for the original incarnation of the Outsiders, way back when.
Writer Mike Barr did some of his best work on that book, and though Jim Aparo was maybe getting a little past his prime his art was still reliably good. I was a skeptic going in, but Barr made me believe that Batman could lead a team and still be Batman. However, even Barr eventually realized that isn’t really workable in the long term and he had Batman leave the title.
It didn’t last long after that. Ever since then, DC has taken periodic swings at trying to get a new version going. So far none of them have stuck, either with Batman or without.
This is the latest, and it annoyed me quite a bit. I only paid three dollars for the paperback and even at that I felt cheated; if I’d paid full price I would be furious with myself at my poor judgement.
My big problem with it is that it’s built on the whole Batman-is-a-driven-asshole trope which I have come to loathe. That approach to Batman, as far as I’m concerned, worked exactly once. In Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Much like Watchmen, DC took completely the wrong lesson from the success of that one story and made the unique one-off the default setting. Even Miller himself couldn’t recapture that success and instead descended into self-parody.
This latest version from writer Bryan Hill isn’t quite into “the goddamn Batman” territory, but you can see it from here.
Which is bad enough, but it gets something else so utterly and fundamentally wrong it took me right out of the story. The mission Batman sends the team on– and he sends the team, he doesn’t lead the team–is taking on Ra’s al Ghul.
I have two words for that: horse and shit. No way. Batman regards Ra’s al Ghul as his deadliest enemy, worse even than the Joker. He is a villain who is always operating on a global scale, who knows all Batman’s secrets, who commands a private army. There is simply no scenario I can believe where Batman would say, “I’m busy, so how about you take this bunch of emotionally-unstable newbies thousands of miles away, with no backup from me, to go rescue this girl from the League of Assassins?” But those are essentially the marching orders he gives to Black Lightning.
There’s a lot more wrong with it, especially the personalities Hill establishes for Black Lightning and Katana. They’re just… off. Both of them are characters DC’s been screwing around with for decades so I can see how a writer might feel like he has an unlimited license to completely reboot them, but it seems to me that there’s a point where you get so far away from the originals you might as well call them something else. In particular, you shouldn’t set up Katana to be the older wiser person Black Lightning confides in when everything established about each one of them in the previous three decades of published stories suggests it should be the reverse. Jefferson Pierce is supposed to be an older level-headed guy that has more genuine life experience than Tatsu, who’s always been played as a social misfit who’s not good with people. I just can’t see Jeff filled with self-doubt over his ability to lead a team, especially berating himself in comparison to how Batman would do it… and even in that highly unlikely scenario, there’s no earthly reason to pick Katana as being the one who could help him figure that out. Certainly they shouldn’t be a couple, which is where Hill seems to want to take them.
So I was out already, but apparently Black Lightning’s creator, Tony Isabella, was even madder than I was about this particular version of Black Lightning and there’s been a bit of an online kerfuffle about whether or not a new writer has the right to drag someone else’s creation through the dirt like this.
Full disclosure: I have corresponded with Tony a little and we consider him to be a friend of the Junk Shop. But long before that, I have always said that DC treated Mr. Isabella horribly when it comes to Black Lightning, including in several columns at the old stand. But especially now, when there’s a hit TV show featuring the character that’s much closer to the original conception AND that’s generating a new wave of interest in his comics, I really have to wonder why DC seems determined to sabotage any goodwill both creators and fans have for the character.
Bottom line: my advice to you is to skip this and spend your money on the old Barr/Aparo/Davis version. As it happens, those comics are also available in various collected editions and they’re a lot more fun.
I read them in reverse order, but I wasn’t too terribly lost. Nevertheless, we’ll look at them in the order you should read them. Start with The Batman Who Laughs, from Scott Snyder and Jock.
I only bought this because the Batman/Superman volume had gotten me interested, and also it was cheap. (I can be talked into lots of impulse book buys if the cash outlay is negligible.) I wasn’t expecting much because frankly Scott Snyder’s interminable Court of Owls storyline put me completely off the Bat books a few years ago, something even Judd Winick and his Red Hood stuff had not been able to accomplish.
I liked this better than I thought I was going to. Although there are a couple of huge flaws with it that didn’t quite ruin it for me, your mileage may vary. The premise is certainly enticing; the idea is that on an alternate earth, the Joker managed in his death throes to infect that world’s Batman with concentrated Joker venom that somehow made Batman into a new Joker, so this new composite is as crazy and homicidal as the Joker but also has all of Batman’s skill, knowledge, and memories. In theory this makes him unbeatable. But when he shows up in our world, Batman still has to beat him, so how does he pull that off?
I take mild exception to the idea that the only way is for our Batman to infect himself with the same venom. But that’s what Snyder goes with.
I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that ‘our’ Batman succeeds where the alternate one didn’t and overcomes his inner evil Joker-ness, or whatever you want to call it. But apart from that, I’m absolutely fed up with stories about “Batman versus his dark reflection.” Especially when it’s done using the Joker. I thought that was a really stupid take on the character way back in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie and I haven’t been persuaded otherwise by anyone who’s tried it since. The Joker is NOT Batman’s dark mirror, he’s Batman’s OPPOSITE. Period the end. That’s baked in to his character. Fight me.
That said, there was enough good in the book I don’t regret getting it.
I would have, if I’d bought it before the other one, though. Why? Because I have this crazy idea that book collections like these should be a self-contained reading experience. As it was, I already had the follow-up to hand, I’d read it first in fact, and I got that one cheap too.
This one postulates that during the previous all-out battle, the Batman Who Laughs managed to find time off-panel during the events of that story to infect a bunch of other folks–six of them, as explained in the title—with his turn-you-evil Joker venom. Batman and Superman have to figure out who and cure them.
This is harder to follow on its own, you kind of have to have read at least the previous Batman Who Laughs mini-series. But more annoying than that, the story doesn’t END. Apparently I stumbled on to DC’s Big Event Crossover for this year without knowing it; the whole infected heroes thing is apparently just part of the Year of the Villain.
I know I sound like a grumpy old guy when I complain about this kind of endless spiral in stories. (Well, I am a grumpy old guy, but that’s not the point.) I am aware that the idea of a single issue of a comic as a discrete storytelling unit in itself, as opposed to being a chapter of an ongoing story, has pretty much gone the way of the dodo. But I don’t think it’s asking too much to demand that of a two-hundred-plus page hardcover book. Here’s two in a row, totaling over four hundred and fifty pages for Chrissake, and nothing is resolved.
Even getting these books remaindered for pennies on the dollar, I still feel cheated. I can’t imagine what an eager fan who paid full price would be feeling, but I bet it wouldn’t be happiness. DC has been using this strategy ever since they plastered a Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-in! banner on a bunch of marginally-related titles back in the 1980s and it was kind of iffy then. But taking it this far is clearly out of control. I have no idea who these books are even aimed at, at this point. But it’s clearly not me.
Got a little carried away with all that bitching, so I’ll make quick work of the rest of these.
Batman: Private Casebook by Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen.
This is a hardcover collecting several of the issues from Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen’s run on Detective. DC did a pretty crappy job getting these issues out in collected editions and I have no idea why because they are terrific. This one also has a nice little story from guest writer Peter Milligan and Nguyen, “The Suit of Sorrows,” which is very cool. There’s a big omnibus hardcover coming that collects all the Dini/Nguyen stories in one place but I’m never going to be able to afford that, so I guess I’ll just keep scooping up the fragmentary collections like this one when I see them for sale on the cheap. But really you should just get the omnibus if you can spare the cash.
Batwoman by J.H. Williams (and also Mark Andreyko.)
Had a shot at all these hardcovers for next to nothing, and I remembered how much I enjoyed the first couple of them. So I decided to finish the set. Good stuff, even the last two paperback collections where Marc Andreyko was given the thankless job of trying to finish the arc and give the title some direction after Williams was pushed off the book mid-story.
Batman: Gotham Knights: Transference by Devin Grayson, with art from Dale Eaglesham, Paul Ryan, and Roger Robinson.
This paperback collects the first year of Gotham Knights, one of my favorite Bat books to launch out of the end of the year-long No Man’s Land story. I still think of it as fairly recent but looking it up I realized that was… damn, that was twenty years ago. Man, I’m old.
Anyway, the period when the Batman comics were between the No Man’s Land crossover and Bruce Wayne Murderer/Fugitive was a really great time to be a Batman reader. There was Greg Rucka on Detective, and Ed Brubaker’s first work on Batman, but this was my favorite. The Devin Grayson Gotham Knights was a sort of updated version of Batman Family (man, I’m really old) essentially done as a team book.
I loved that idea and this series was absolutely Ms. Grayson’s high point at DC. Very glad to see it collected at long last, and I hope they do the rest of her run. For that matter, instead of constantly giving us progressively lamer reboots of the Outsiders, DC ought to do a new version of this instead. Tynion had that going in his Detective run and it was working, damn it. A Bat-family team book seems like such an obvious idea, I can’t figure out why DC doesn’t put someone on it.
The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years, by, well, everyone.
I’ve mostly been avoiding these “Celebration” hardcovers because I usually have the stories here in other collections, but with the current crop of new 80-Years-Of celebratory collections, the ones from five years ago are getting discounted down to nothing. So even though the listing didn’t actually say what’s in it, I thought I’d roll the dice on this one. The usual suspects are all here, of course: the first Joker appearance from Batman #1, “Man in the Red Hood,” “Five-Way Revenge,” “Laughing Fish,” all of those. But there are a couple of cool Golden Age stories I haven’t read before, and also some relatively new stuff I haven’t kept up with. Overall there was enough here new to me that it was worth the seven bucks (including shipping) I invested in it. And it is a really nice hardcover. As Joker collections go I’d rate it pretty high, but this is still the one to beat.
And there you have it. I’ll be back next week with the rest of the quarantine pile– the NON-Batman books, that is. There were a few.
In the meantime, stay safe. Be like Batman: wear a mask and wash your damn hands.