Saturday, February 07, 2009

Twelve thoughts about Superman/Batman: Torment

I’m either a glutton for punishment, or have some crippling addiction to Superman and Batman that I cannot resist reading about them, but despite how little I enjoyed Michael Green and Shane Davis’ Superman/Batman: The Search for Kryptonite, I didn’t let that stop me from reading the next available Superman/Batman trade from a local library, Superman/Batman: Torment by Alan Burnett, Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs.

This one collects a six-issue arc that ran right before Search For Kryptonite (Well, right before the fill-in issue right before Search for Kryptonite), and right after Mark Verheiden’s short, nine-issue run that kept up title founder Jeph Loeb’s crazy shit happening at random formula, but was somehow even worse, operating with an attitude that wasn’t merely continuity-lite, but continuity-adverse. Although it was Pat Lee’s artwork on the Metal Man retcon/reboot that finally caused me to drop the title).

So, given what came before and what came after, I just sort of assumed that this was going to be a rough read and expecting the collection’s title to be more or less literal.

But, to my great surprise, this was actually pretty decent. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have liked it nearly so much as it was originally being serialized, as it does have to do with Jack Kirby’s New Gods, which, at the time, were in a weird state that varied from title to title (DC hadn’t used any of them for a while, to get ready for Final Crisis, but then apparently decided to use them everywhere during Countdown, killing them all off in preparation for Final Crisis). And also, if I read it in that format, I would have been paying for the privilege.

But as a trade, after Final Crisis, read for free from the library? It’s really not bad at all. It’s probably Burnett’s best DCU work (not that he’s done much) and maybe, just maybe, the best arc of the series’ existence, but it’s hard to say—I mean, Loeb’s the good writer on this book, so quality is pretty relative.

Although this was much, much better than The Search For Kryptonite, I am going to address it in the same format as I addressed the last collection of the series, and continue this weekend’s lazy, list-making review technique (I did write at least one real, paragraphs-and-everything review this weekend though! There’s a Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead #1 review at Blog@).

1.) Dustin Nguyen is a really good artist. Superman/Batman has been blessed with some of the industry’s more popular artists, many of whom are actually quite good at what they do. That’s why Shane Davis or Pat Lee’s work kind of stuck out as being particularly bad, I think. I don’t know that Nguyen is quite as popular as, say, Ed McGuinness or Carlos Pacheco, but he’s certainly good at what he does. I haven’t got a single complaint about the art end of things here; it’s easy to read, many of the designs are rather inspired, the action is lively.

Nguyen seems to have taken some cues from Mike Mignola, as his Darkseid has the bulk and square-ish shape Mignola gave him in Cosmic Odyssey. Nguyen’s Batman also occasionally reminds me of Mignola’s, in certain medium to long shots of Batman in costume.

2.) Hey, how come this collection doesn’t get an introduction? Green’s Search For Kryptonite had an introduction to it, as did Green’s Lovers and Madmen, but here? Nothing. Lame.

3.) That’s Killer Croc? Okay, well, there’s one design I’m not overly fond of, and that's Nguyen’s Croc. He doesn’t look much like himself, although perhaps that’s not as much Nguyen’s fault as DC’s somewhat lax stance on character design. Croc was pretty radically transformed in Batman: Hush, either given plastic surgery or somehow mutated by Hush to make him look more like a crocodile, and that look has mostly stuck. Nguyen’s version seems like something of a compromise between the pre- and post-Hush looks, but his Croc also has craggy, stalactite-like spines all over his back that make him look like an entirely different character.

Burnett refers to him as reptilian too, which didn’t use to be the case—he was just a big, strong guy with a skin disease, not a crocodile/human hybrid—and uses him in a somewhat strange way. He’s hired by a mysterious villain to steal something from Lex Corp, which is more of a Catwoman-y job than a Croc one, you know?

4.) I like the messy hair Nguyen draws on Clark Kent.

5.) There’s a really nicely-executed page of Superman freaking out while sitting at his desk, seemingly beat-down by his own narration boxes. I thought that was a very effective scene. And kind of amusing, given this title’s traditional over-use of narration boxes, although I doubt that was the intent here.

6.) The Scarecrow working with the Desaad and traveling to outer space just doesn’t seem right. I love The Scarecrow, and the prospect of him taking on Superman is kind of interesting, but he doesn’t quite seem to fit in well with the sci-fi aspects of the story. Once he’s on a planet-sized warship in outer space, the clash between Superman and the New Gods and this rag-wearing Bat-villain seemed particularly discordant.

7.) Oh hey, this is the book with that cover. I’m not sure if you remember or care or not, but issue of this series was originally solicited with an image of Batman standing behind Bekka, his right hand resting between her throat and her breasts. When it finally came out, however, the hand was removed, and was now hidden by Batman’s cape. Apparently, his hand was too close to brushing her breasts on the cover for DC’s comfort.

The pair do make out and maybe more in the story. Batman does strip her naked and lay atop her on the floor kissing her for a while. But apparently the cover was a little risqué. In the back of this trade, there are a series of pages showing Nguyen’s roughs for the covers, and there are four different versions of the cover, with Batman’s hand on her neck, her stomach or simply on his batarangs.

8.) Wait, Bekka? I had no idea Orion was even married. I guess he doesn’t talk about his wife very much in his appearances in other books, does he?

9.) Batman is “aroused beyond all reason.” When I got to this part, I remembered that Batman’s secret Canadian girlfriend Rachelle Goguen had a pretty amusing review of this issue (With lots of scans! Check it out!). In a nutshell, Bekka is a goddess and, like all of the New Gods and New Goddesses she has a power of some sort, and hers doesn’t seem all that useful—the men around her really, really want to have sex with her, and she really, really wants to have sex with them. The more hardened the heart, the stronger it is, which is why she married Orion. And you know, Batman sure is heard-hearted, so the pull is strong. The only way they can get past it is to have sex, which they don’t want to do.

This whole conflict is kind of interesting, in a Well I’ve never seen THAT before kinda way, and Burnett does try to use this as an opportunity to describe how sad and lonely Batman is in life, but man, is it ever silly. Plus I guess Batman must have an erection for, like, the whole second half of this book? I guess it’s a good thing he wears that long, flowing cape.

10.) Oh yeah, Superman dies. So what’s Desaad up to here? Well, Darkseid lost his Omega powers, and is kind of sad and depressed and sort of losing it now. When we first see him, he trips. Desaad has found the late Highfather’s magic cane embedded in the Source Wall, and the plan is to have a brain-wiped Superman retrieve it for them and use it restore Darkseid’s eye beams. Once that’s occurred, they zap Superman with it, and he finds himself in The Source. But first he has this crazy hospital scene where various characters appear and pay their respects. Starro brings him a basket of cupcakes.

It’s pretty amusing, but seems pretty out of place with the rest of the story, which is about the evil of the evil New Gods and Batman’s unreasonable arousal.

11.) The second to last page is pretty awesome. After Desaad and Darkseid are defeated and the heroes make it back to Earth, Orion picks Bekka up on the flying elliptical machine he travels around on, and gives Batman a pretty dirty look.

Once they’re back home on New Genesis, they apparently sex it up for a while, and there’s a neat couple panels of Orion putting his belt and helmet on, and Bekka lying naked in bed, asking when he’ll be back from making war on the gods of Apokolips.

I really like the banal domesticity of their life, as if Orion’s a neglectful husband about to go on a business trip again. Except his business if flying over to the next planet to beat up Kalibak and Granny Goodness.

12.) The last page is super-dumb. Once Orion flies off to work, Bekka thinks to herself, “As long as he returns, all will be right. Thoughts of Batman will pass. They must.”

And then she notices a pair of white, triangular eyes I the shadows of her room. A black hand stretches out of the shadows, and there’s a “CCHHHOOOO” sound that makes Bekka glow and say “AAAARRHHH!” while a “FSSSSS” appears. In the very last panel, a burning scrap of the sheer cloth she had wrapped herself in floats out the window, and someone off panel says “So begins the end.

Because I read a lot of DC comics and a lot of reviews of them and pay attention to creator and editor interviews on Newsarama, I knew that around this time some mysterious stranger was going around killing all the New Gods characters in the DCU. I didn’t read Death of the New Gods or Countdown, so I don’t remember who it actually was—it was revealed to be Infinity Man in one comic I read, but maybe it was Darkseid posing as Infinity Man…or something…?

But there’s nothing in this book to give the scene any context; there’s no “To be continued in Death of the New Gods” or anything, no foreword or afterword to make sense of the scene.

If this was the only DC comic you read in trade, I can’t imagine how this scene plays out. Did Batman, who was in her thoughts in the previous panel, who wears black gloves, who sticks to the shadows, and who has white, triangle-shaped eyes, travel to New Genesis to take care of their problem by incinerating Bekka? Did Darkseid, the villain of the book, return from what could have been his death to get revenge on Bekka?

I thought it was the latter for a while, and then remembered the whole New Gods Killer plotline from a year or so ago. At any rate, a pretty strange note to end a book on.


John Foley said...

DC has this peculiar policy where they refuse to call Killer Croc a mutant or whatever. They just say that he has a skin condition, even though the guy is basically half dinosaur at this point. But he's been much more than human for at least 20 years. I remember a Rick Veitch issue of Swamp Thing where Croc had his spinal cord destroyed by nerve gas and was paralyzed, but a few months later had completely regenerated. Once he realized he could heal like this, Croc even made some kind of comment about being able to heal "just like a good reptile" or something.
So I think he's a mutant. DC has always been weird about recognizing mutants.

Jacob T. Levy said...

And in a couple of issues of Batman, Croc is summoned to Louisiana by Swamp Thing, who says his reptilian-ness is accelerating and he should be allowed to just be a croc in the swamps.

I think the doctrine now is that the initial skin condition, etc., were just the early symptoms of Croc's underlying condition, and that he's constantly evolving backward, becoming more and more reptilian.