So, we’re now a month through the Batman Reborn ‘event’, it might be time to take stock of what’s been going on in the bat-titles ( I have of course reviewed a few of these titles here and here earlier…)
I’ve read all the ‘Batman Reborn’ titles except ‘Red Robin’, and it’s very obvious that despite the branding there is really no overarching ‘event’ going on at all here. Dini’s two titles are just unpleasant – Gotham City Sirens I dealt with before, but Streets Of Gotham is just as nasty in its own way, managing to combine mass-murder, child prostitution and continuity-wank into one perfectly horrible story.
I do wonder what on Earth happened to Dini. A couple of years ago his work on Detective was fresh and entertaining – fun, done in one superhero stories. But since around the time he started working on the egregious Countdown he has instead written some of the worst dreck I’ve ever read, and developed an obsession with Hush, a character that has not one single point of interest.
Meanwhile, the remaining title, Batman, is clearly the remedial readers’ title, as one would expect from a comic by Judd Winick and Ed Benes, with DIck Grayson explaining very clearly in words of one or two syllables everything that was implied by Morrison’s script for Batman & Robin#1 – that Batman is dead, that Dick Grayson is the new Batman, that he is not very happy about these things, and so on.
One could almost think that the new Bat-status had been set up specifically to educate superhero comics fans – “Look, this is what we call a good comic. GOOD comics can be recognised by having interesting stories, pictures which are nice to look at, and not leaving you feeling slightly soiled afterwards. THIS, on the other hand, is what we call a bad comic. In a bad comic, nothing happens that anyone could possibly care about, the women all look like stick figures with two circles drawn randomly in the chest area, and it makes you despair for the human race that anyone could possibly produce anything with such a grotesquely twisted moral tone. No, you CAN’T have the variant cover! BAD fanboy!” (smacks round the nose with a rolled-up copy of Gotham City Sirens)
One could think that at least, if one didn’t look through the comments on comics blogs. The comments to this post (I can’t link the comments directly, unfortunately) seem pretty typical – J.H. Williams’ art is “stagnant as the Dead Sea”, “confuses more than it clarifies”, “too hyper-realistic and stiff”, “tiresome” and “flashy show-off stuff that just distracts from the visuals”…
(Yes, that’s the J.H. Williams who does pages like this:)
So apparently the reaction of many superhero comic ‘readers’ when confronted with anything that might be called ‘good’ is to be scared and confused, because it makes things happen in their brain and that’s never happened before.
What’s particularly interesting is how much the two titles that might be called ‘any good at all’ rely on the quality of the art. Detective is a competent story with the best artist working in comics providing the art, while Batman And Robin is a very good story with the second-best artist working in comics providing the art. This is especially shown in Batman & Robin 2. This issue, the middle part of a three-part story, has very little in the way of plot, being almost all action, and most of that a fight scene, which provides a problem to reviewers like myself who can talk all day about writing but whose vocabulary for describing art stretches about as far as ‘pretty’.
It’s especially telling to compare this issue to anything from Morrison’s Bat-run from the last few years (other than the Black Glove story with Williams’ art) – the writing on those issues was just as good, but sometimes it was almost entirely unreadable, due to the artists not bothering with trivialities such as ‘telling the story’ or ‘drawing characters who look different from each other’. Here, even in a fairly story-light issue, the whole thing works, because Quitely’s ‘acting’ of the characters’ body-language and expression, and his layouts, and his staging, allow everything to move smoothly.
My favourite moment in the comic though shows what can be done by a good writer working within a superhero continuity. It’s the bit where Alfred talks to Dick about Dick’s ‘showbusiness’ background and tells him to treat Batman as a role. Not only does this work within the story, which is based in his background in the circus, while also illuminating things about Dick’s character, it also points to deeper things about Dick and Alfred’s relationship. Before becoming a butler, Alfred was an actor (under the stage name ‘Alfred Beagle’) and that shared ‘showbusiness’ background would be something Dick and Alfred would have shared, even though I’ve never seen it mentioned before in that context. So not only does it make sense that that metaphor would be one Alfred would think of, it illuminates their relationship by using a continuity point – but the story and that moment also still make perfect sense if you don’t know that.
That’s how continuity should be used – as something that adds resonance if you know it, but doesn’t detract if you don’t. Now, if only this ‘good comics’ thing would catch on…