This month’s cover happens to be the one used in the series’ initial announcement (though mislabeled as a variant for issue #1 at the time) back when we knew next to nothing about it. The history of the title, as well as the silver age costumes worn by the chess pieces on the board had me assuming that it was going to be a series of small stories set during that era, which made me very excited (if you haven’t been reading Waid and Mora’s Batman/Superman: World’s Finest, you really should). However, the artwork is apparently totally unrelated to anything inside. For all but the last story, this issue is comprised entirely of “part 2″s following up on last month’s debut.
In the last review I talked about the unpredictable nature of anthology collections, but I think something has been lost in recent years in that respect. As per usual, I’m going to hold up Batman: Black and White as the gold (gray?) standard for how anthologies should be handled. Each story is a separate creative team with no restraints by continuity or even structure outside of the limited page count. It forces authors to write stories in a different way than your typical comic, and as such creates an opportunity for unique and memorable storytelling.
However, with the modern obsession with multi-part stories, it almost feels like the art of short-form comics has been lost. It’s rare that a story will last only a single issue when it could be stretched out to six parts and therefor fill up a trade paperback release. Consequently, even anthology stories are getting the same treatment, but shifted one step down. Instead of each story standing on its own, it’s a roughly 50-80 page story broken up into pieces and shuffled in with a few others. Those seem like stories that could just be their own releases as either miniseries or graphic novels (Batman: The Killing Joke was only 48 pages). Now it seems that the only place you can reliably get actual short stories are as backups, and even those are often multi-part nowadays.
With my rambling on the comic industry as a whole out of the way, let’s take a look at the actual stories themselves:
Batman: The Winning Card part 2
Tom King’s retelling of Batman and Joker’s first encounter is proving to be almost slavishly loyal to the original story in Batman #1 from 1940. The story beats, characters, and even specific scenes and lines of dialog all line up pretty much one to one. It’s not the first time King has called back to old golden age stories, or even Batman #1, as he did when he directly referenced and incorporated Catwoman’s origin from that issue into the arc “Rooftops” in Batman (2016) #15. Of course, the original Joker story was only 13 pages long and this is being stretched out to four-parts totaling about 90 pages. What that means is that King needs to flesh out a lot, as would be expected in a modern comic, and the results range from engrossing to frustrating.
There are times when King adds a palpable sense of horror and dread to the page, and it makes for a fantastic story. The opening especially builds tension with every panel as Mr. Wilde and the audience wait for the clock to strike twelve to see how the Joker will strike. Gerads’ art is executed masterfully to sell the dread and suspense which makes it almost impossible to look away. It’s that tension which Tom King is able to create so well where the adaptation really shines, and you see it again when Joker and Batman finally meet. It becomes clear that the Joker is totally unlike anyone he’s fought before, a true shift in what crime in Gotham will look like. The characterization is also done extremely well, especially the scene between Bruce and Alfred as he prepares to confront Joker for the first time.
Where the story falters is when it gets lost in its excess. For example, when Joker is executing the police while wearing a suit of armor, it’s a chaotic scene which works perfectly to the character in its cruel absurdity. However, King just takes it a step too far by having him juggle the victims eyeballs, followed by Jim Gordon tell a story about how his own father committed suicide by blowing his head off with a shot gun. It comes across as trying too hard to show us that this isn’t the kids’ comic from the 40s that we know. That insistence also spills over into a lot of the dialog as well. The @#%! swearing is not nearly as bad as part 1, but it’s still prevalent enough to be distracting, especially when Joker starts leaning into literal toilet humor that feels sophomoric more than anything else.
Overall it’s a story that I’m very split on. It showcases some of King’s best and worst tendencies as a writer. It takes an existing concept and adds layers of depth and complexity, but at the same time feels the need to press that perceived maturity to the point where it loses sight of what makes the story work.
Stormwatch: Down with the Kings part 2
With this first part’s exposition and introductory action mission out of the way, we can finally get things started with… more exposition. I’m hoping this doesn’t become a constant in the structure of all of these stories, but part 2 opens with yet more pages of dense exposition dumped over multiple pages. I understand the need to lay out the premise of the mission, and the concept is interesting enough, but simply having characters take turns expositing everything to the others (to the reader) is a rather inelegant solution. The plot exposition is immediately followed by character exposition, but it’s handled much more organically. We learn more about the various characters and their relationships, but it’s all delivered via natural and believable dialog with humor.
While it takes maybe too much explaining to get to, the action itself is engaging and creates a setting that gets you interested. The Xect’s design are reminiscent of Davy Jones’ crew from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and the threat of the Dead Sea Blade evokes a sort of “horrors from the deep” atmosphere. The mission is constantly changing as the team adjusts on the fly to how to handle the subnautical sword with the ability to infect the world with its mysterious virus. It’s all exciting enough to keep you interested and wanting to know what will happen next, though hopefully future installments can break the “exposition, action set piece” formula before it wears out its welcome.
Superman: Order of the Black Lamp part 2
Last month I said that “Superman: Order of the Black Lamp” had a clearly defined thematic core, and centered its narrative around that idea. Part 2 expertly continues that approach, creating a story that reads almost as an abstract contemplation on the meaning of memory rather than a standard narrative. Superman’s opening monologue is a proverb about how rainbows can’t exist without an observer to witness them, and invites us to see memories the same way. It’s only through our recollection of events do we give them context and meaning, and as our perception of them change, so do their significance. All of this is woven into the plot of the story itself, with the mountain lair, the decoder ring, and Superman’s own memories of them all being something long forgotten.
None of that is to say that the story does not deliver as a superhero adventure. The secret decoder ring and the exotic, hidden lair filled with spandex-clad henchmen and robots all in matching, brightly themed colors all feel like exactly the kind of pulpy tale you’d find in a 40s adventure serial. Of course all of this ties into the theme of nostalgia and memory, but it also stands on its own for a fun and exciting story. Superman’s optimistic attitude and humor shine throughout his narration. The vibrant action and captivating mystery are brought to life by Javier Rodriguez’s wonderful art. The solid, cool tones create a striking contrast with the explosions of red and orange, and the panel layouts draw the eye into zigzagging directions as Superman delves deeper into the labyrinthine lair.
All Things Considered
There is a famous painting by Alex Ross called “Batman Scars” which first appeared in the original Batman: Black & White collection from 1996. In it, we see Bruce Wayne, shirtless in front of his cape and cowl, as he look over his shoulder to see his back covered in scars. It’s an immediately striking image that makes tangible the decades of abuse his body has taken, and what it means for him to continue his crusade. “All Things Considered” by Joëlle Jones is if you took that single image and created a short story.
Despite being more than just a single image, “All Things Considered” is still almost entirely a visual piece. In its seven pages, there are only 78 words, and they’re almost entirely at either the beginning or the very end. I’ve written almost twice that many already in this review of it. In place of traditional dialog, we’re presented with a montage of Batman’s most brutal injuries, ranging from when Bane broke his back to his torture at the hands of the Court of Owls. Each one looms over Bruce as the story behind each of the scars visible on his body are revealed.
Were this the entire story, then it would simply be the same as what was already shown in Ross’ painting, but in a more explicit and detailed manner. Where Jones goes one step further is by contextualizing that pain with the things that make Bruce keep going. We see his star crossed romance with Catwoman, and the love he shares with each of the Robins he’s been a father to in one form or another. Finally we see his earliest memories of the people who cared for him, helping him get back up when he was hurt. It’s a beautiful testament of Bruce Wayne’s resilience, and critically, what makes everything worth it. All of this it’s able to do almost without saying a word.
This is exactly the kind of short story I want more of from these anthology collections, and what made Batman: Black & White such a pillar of creative excellence.
- You want a wide range of superhero stories in both tone and characters
- You enjoy seeing Superman used to explore deeper meanings about ourselves
- The black and white story by Joëlle Jones is genuinely one of the best Batman comics I’ve ever read
Batman: The Brave and the Bold #2 offers an extremely diverse set of stories. King’s retelling of the first Joker story, an action focused team up, an introspective exploration of memory, and a look at the pain that both drives and haunts Bruce Wayne. Each one brings something totally different. However, where the collection truly shines is in the latter, shorter two stories. In so few pages they are able to convey so much meaning and emotion that they will stick in my mind for a long time.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purposes of this review.