Sunday, October 04, 2009

Eighteen thoughts about Superman and Batman vs. Vampires and Werewolves

—I’m fascinated by the title of this miniseries. There’s an admirable obviousness and, yes, a certain amount of stupidity to it, but it’s the sort of stupidity that is at least leaning in the direction of awesomeness (See All-Star Batman and Robin and Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern for examples of DC comics that have achieved a perfect balance of stupid and awesome).

—Additionally, I’m extremely curious how the title for this project came about. Its construction mirrors that of 2007 series Superman and Batman Versus Aliens and Predator, a of quadruple franchise crossover that possibly did extremely well for DC in trade paperback (I know the trade collection made it onto a Young Adult Library Services Association list of recommended books for teens, for example).

So I suppose it’s possible DC saw that the S&BvA&P trade did unexpectedly well in certain markets and they wanted to replicate that particular formula, but rather than teaming up with Dark Horse Comics again, they decided to pit their Superman and Batman team against public domain adversaries. Instead of choosing, I don’t know, Dracula and Mr. Darcy or Moby Dick and the Headless Horseman they went with two popular species of monster in the generic.

If that wasn’t the case, then I find this project’s existence as a six-issue miniseries a little harder to guess at. Remember, DC already has a Superman/Batman team-up book, in which the two heroes team-up to fight various adversaries about once a month, give or take a shipping delay.

That book is also almost completely divorced from DCU continuity—the stories probably technically all “count” in that they’re not “imaginary stories” or anything, but they rarely reflect what’s going on in a given month or even year within the Batman and Superman titles—so why put this story out under that odd title as a standalone miniseries, instead of as an arc of Superman/Batman?

I was curious enough to look up what sales data was available, and according to The Beat’s monthly sales analysis, the story would have certainly sold more comics as part of Superman/Batman.

According to The Beat, the first issue of Superman and Batman Vs. Vampires and Werewolves sold 27,825 units, and the declined to just 17,273 by the sixth issue. During the same October to December of 2008 period, Superman/Batman only shipped two issues, missing the November ship date. These sold 48,187 and 45,968 units, respectively. So if Superman/Batman pushed back the start of the four-part “Super/Bat” story arc a couple months to accommodate a six-part, bi-weekly “Vs. Vampires and Werewolves” arc, they would have sold a hell of a lot more issues.

Alternately, I wonder if this might have sold better if it was just branded as a Batman book or a JLA book. Batman is the main character, and there are just about enough Leaguers to hold up the weight of JLA branding (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Nightwing and Jason Blood/The Demon…throw in a few cameos for cover and it’s a JLA story if you want to call it one). In fall of 2008, Batman and Justice League of America were DC’s #2 and #3 best-selling comics.

—One more thing about the title and I’ll shut up about it, I swear. It’s also somewhat curious given the story within. As I mentioned, there are a lot of other superheroes involved, and while Superman gets more panel-time than any of them who aren’t Batman, a new character introduced in the series gets a lot more than he does, and that character and Batman are the only ones present in all six issues. That character, by the way, is a vampire, and there’s a werewolf character that also allies itself with Superman and Batman. So really, this thing is more like Superman and Batman and A Vampire and A Werewolf (and Some Other Superheroes) vs. Vampires and Werewolves and Lovecraftian Monsters (and a Mad Scientist, if You Want to Count Him Too).

—Writer Kevin VanHook and artist Tom Mandrake have the ideal last names to work on horror comics. The names “Van Hook” and “Mandrake” look simply perfect on a spine with the words “vampires” and “werewolves” on it.

—I love Tom Mandrake. Love love love love love him. He’s one of the first comics artists I knew by name and whose work I could tell at a glance. I think his work on The Spectre and Martian Manhunter is underrated, and he’s fantastically well-suited for horror stories.

—Wait, when I said I loved Tom Mandrake above, you know I meant his artwork, right? Because I don’t even know Tom Mandrake, let alone know him well enough to be in love with him.

—I kind of hate the cover of the trade (and the first issue of the series) though. That’s a great werewolf face, and a pretty good vampire face, and there’s nothing wrong with his Superman or Batman, but, I don’t know, this just seems kind of lame for some reason. Maybe I’d like it better if the split vampire/werewolf face were green, and it was supposed to be Composite Dracula or something…

—I was happy to see this trade contains an introduction. I love introductions in trade collections of serialized comics, and I think they should be pretty much mandatory. This may be in large part simple nostalgia on my part, for a time when trade collections were much, much rarer and almost always accompanied by an introduction that argued, at least in part and usually even subconsciously, why the comics in question were even being given a spine, collected between two covers and sold outside of comic shops in the first place.

The fact that trade collections are now so common we don’t see introductions as often is a good sign, demonstrating how much more accepted comics are now then they were in the late eighties and early nineties. But I don’t think it hurts for someone to have to spend a few paragraphs explaining what’s so special about what you’re about to read, you know? Also, it’s just a little value added, so if you are buying a story twice (as serial comics and then as a collection), or are paying a little extra for a hardcover or whatever, you’re getting something extra. (Original graphic novels, on the other hand, probably shouldn’t have introductions, as they need to stand on their own in a way that, say, Superman/Batman #45-#49 might not need to).

—This introduction is by John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London, making him a good “get” for a comic featuring werewolves.

—Unfortunately, Landis premises part of his intro on Superman’s vulnerability to magic, which Landis suspects might be VanHook’s original invention.

Superman can be weakened and even defeated by Kryptonite, but I discovered in Keven VanHook’s new story that Superman can also be affected by “magic.” Exactly how one defines “magic” can also be broadly defined. Whether or not this “magical effect” on Superman’s powers has been long established or not really does not matter.

Come on, Landis!

—The lettering in this book is huge. Like, gigantic. I think it’s because that instead of bolding and italicizing the stress words in sentences—a peculiarity of DC superhero comics that has long bugged me—letterers Steve Wands and Travis Landham use all-caps on the stress words, so that the narration boxes seem to take up more space than they might actually take up.

And there’s a lot of narration in this thing. Not an ungodly Brad Meltzer amount, and VanHook avoids that irritating Batman and Superman narrating about one another constantly strategy that Jeph Loeb used on Superman/Batman, but there is a narrator in this book, and that means narration boxes getting between my eyes and Tom Mandrake’s lines.

—There are a lot of guest-stars in this, as I mentioned above. Wonder Woman, Nightwing, Green Arrow, Jason Blood/Etrigan, The Demon and Dr. Kirk Langstrom/Man-Bat. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. I certainly enjoyed seeing Mandrake’s GA for what may have been the first time, and he does a mean Man-Bat too, in a rather cool scene in which Man-Bat fights some werewolves and rips off one’s head (And it takes a pretty good artist to be able to draw a were-bat fighting a werewolf and keep the character’s distinct in close-up).

It’s kind of odd how the characters who aren’t Batman seem to come and go, though. Wonder Woman is in the first issue—appearing well before Superman, who doesn’t enter the story until the last page of the second issue—and she fights a vampire, then completely disappears from the story. Her only other mention is Batman mentioning that she called him to tell him about the vampire.

Nightwing similarly appears, fights a monster, hands it over to Batman and takes off. I didn’t really get a sense of why most of the characters were there and where they went, and found myself distracted by it in a couple of instances. In general, I got the impression that certain Justice Leaguers were always dumping their work on Batman’s lap.

I liked Nightwing’s exit though, as it just made him look like a big wussy. He chases down and KOs a werewolf, brings it back to the Batcave for Batman to examine, talks some shop with his boss for a bit, and then when Batman is ready to take on the source of all the vampire and werewolf activity, Nightwing thinks of something more pressing he needs to do:
Ha ha, whatever Nightwing! I’ve read your comic, you never have things to take care of.

—I like page 13, in which Mandrake frames Batman by the jaws of his mechanical dinosaur:

—The mad scientist seeking to pierce the veil between the world of the living and the dead and accidentally brings Lovecraftian monsters to Earth in the process is named Dr. Herbert Combs. Like Dr. Herbert West, the lead character in Re-Animator, the movie based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story, and Jeffrey Combs, the actor who played him. Get it?

Actually, I probably would have thought that was clever when I first started reading Batman comics….maybe it would have even turned me on to the work of Lovecraft and/or stupid/awesome 1980s horror movies earlier…but now it seems over-obvious. (On the other hand, I suppose complaining about an over-obvious character name in a comic entitled Superman and Batman vs. Vampires and Werewolves is kind of silly of me, huh?)

—In one panel, Batman kicks a demon frog-like fetus creature monster thing so hard in the stomach that a shower of its organs pour out the other side,
and in the very next panel Batman flying kicks its head off.

—Mandrake draws pretty cool Lovecraftian horrors:

—Superman, Batman and Green Arrow all kill the hell out of vampires and werewolves in this. It’s established early on that the monsters are essentially already dead, but it’s still weird to watch Superman and Batman slaughtering their enemies. GA’s killed before, I think, but Superman and Batman?

Even with the caveat that their opponents are already technically dead, it’s somewhat strange to see either of these heroes using lethal force, given the extraordinary lengths each goes to preserve life, in Batman’s case usually going to completely insane lengths (i.e. not only not killing The Joker, but usually going out of his way to save the mass murderer’s life whenever it’s endangered).

It’s made even stranger given that Superman spends the majority of his time in the story trying to save a kid who is infected by the synthetic vampirism disease from going all the way vampire. His reluctance to take a life that might be saved—no matter how slim the chances of success—is a part of the story.

I think pitting these two particular heroes against foes that can only be stopped with lethal force raises some extremely interesting questions about who the characters are and why they behave the way they do. This isnt' a story exploring issues like what constitutes life and where Batman, Superman and their allies draw the line between life and not-life, between killing that’s acceptable and killing that's unacceptable. I’d be a lot more excited to read such a story, though.

I should note that the fact that they can’t get around killing their enemies seems like something of a failure on their part to me. Is it impossible to stop vampires and werewolves without killing them? Is searching for a cure completely hopeless? Maybe, but then isn’t that what Batman and Superman are all about? Finding a way to do the impossible?

And at the end of the day, it’s VanHook manipulating what’s happening on the page. They can find a cure if he can think of one for them to discover; they can take out vampires and werewolves without ending their lives or un-deaths as long as VanHook let’s them, you know?

But perhaps that’s something for a different story.

—I’ve seen Mandrake’s Etrigan before, so it wasn’t a great surprise to see how cool his version of the character is or anything, but wow, I love his Etrigan:
Look at the paws on him!

And that’s 18 thoughts about Superman and Batman vs. Vampires and Werewolves.


Vanja said...

I too was really curious at why was this book solicited, and somewhat disappointed at the lack of interest it drew on the Internet. It certainly sounds very madcap, and instead of Landis, perhaps an editor should have come forward and explained why they thought the story involving these particular characters needed to be told in the first place.

LurkerWithout said...

You know who this book would have made a good re-launching point for? I, Vampire and his ex-Nazi Gorilla spawn from Azarello's Dr.13 story...

Kid Kyoto said...

Good thoughts on how DC marketed (or failed to market) it.

My thought was always they wanted to get out a quick horror story in time for Halloween bookstore sales so I'm a bit disappointed to find they threw in a dozen other DC characters rather than keep true to the Snakes on Plane title.

Glenn Simpson said...

If S/B is selling 48k, and the first issue of S/B/V/W sold 27k, then they (basically) sold 75k comics. If they had made this a part of S/B, then they would only have sold 48k comics.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Is Mandrake underrated? I mean, I guess he never became The Hot Artist or anything, and there are many who've never heard of him. But does anyone who *does* know who he is and what he's done *not* think that he does gorgeous and original work, or that his art is a great reason to buy something?

In this case it wasn't reason enough, though I seriously thought about it on the basis of the art. In the end it looked too stupid.

Since when are werewolves undead?