Saturday, December 12, 2009

Being Free Doesn't Make Them Any Better Pt. 2: Batman: Battle for the Cowl

Batman: Battle for The Cowl was such a pointless endeavor that even discussing it at all seems like a waste of everyone’s time—certainly reading it was.

What precisely happened between the time Batman Bruce Wayne was “killed” by Darkseid in Final Crisis and when an all-new Batman and Robin showed up in Batman and Robin wasn’t all that important to writer Grant Morrison, the creative force currently driving the Batman franchise.

One of Morrison’s great strengths as a comic book writer is that he intentionally leaves blank spaces in his narratives, blank spaces the readers perhaps half-subconsciously fill in with their own imaginations, resulting in adventures that are infinitely more satisfying to the individual reader than anything DC Comics could come up with precisely because the stories are the reader’s own stories.

Occasionally, the publisher will attempt to fill in those spaces however, and that’s what Battle for the Cowl was—the Batman office asking writer/artist Tony S. Daniel to come up with a Point A-and-a-half to stick between Morrison’s Point A and Point B.

Over the past few years, I’ve talked a lot of smack about Daniel’s work, but I do genuinely feel bad for the guy. He’s not a great artist, and is, in fact, still a relatively weak one, having never moved beyond the design-an-image-to-avoid-having-to-draw-human-feet level of artistic development, and yet DC asked him to partner with Grant Morrison, perhaps the comics industry’s most popular creator who is also almost universally critically lauded (generally superhero writers are one or the other) on one of the industry’s premier publisher’s biggest titles. Daniel would have been a fool to turn down the gig, whether he was ready for it or not.

And he wasn’t. His work on Batman with Morrison was cringe inducing. Rather than complementing Morrison’s work and helping to tell the story, Daniel’s art was generally running interference; it was something to be overcome by the reader in order to figure out the script.

With Battle for the Cowl, Daniel had a chance to redeem himself a bit. As great a superhero writer as Morrison may be, he’s not the world’s greatest collaborator—some artists he meshes with perfectly, others seem to be at odds with him. That’s just the nature of making comics piecemeal, I suppose, and it’s unfortunate that Morrison was writing some of the most interesting and exciting Batman stories in a generation, only to have so many of them hampered by the artist.

But here Daniel would be writing as well as drawing, so there shouldn’t be any excuse for any disconnect between the writer and the artist, the script and the printed page. If this artwork wasn’t any good, Daniel had little excuse.

The storytelling is somewhat improved than it was during his work with Morrison on Batman on arcs like “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul” or “Batman R.I.P.” It’s generally clear what’s happening on every page or in every panel, even if it’s not communicated terribly gracefully or doesn’t look all that nice. There wasn’t a single instance where I had no idea what I was looking at, and had to wait a few panels or pages for the dialogue to explain the visuals to me, as happened during Morrison/Daniel collaborations.

That said, Daniel still strikes me as a weak comic book artist. His work still resembles a collage of rough Hollywood storyboards and pin-up sketches more than a fully functional and polished comic book page. He changes scenes with the comic book equivalent of a smash-cut, there’s rarely a sense of space or place or that the characters are interacting with either and some seriously odd, layout choices, like this one of Commissioner Gordon walking across the page:

And even when working from a script he himself wrote, there are weird inconsistencies from panel to panel. In perhaps the most egregious example, the second chapter of the story ends with one of the contenders for the cowl seemingly murdering the other by jamming a sharpened batarang into his rival’s abdomen.

In the panel where the wound is revealed, it’s facing in one direction, but in the very next panel—a splash page which concludes the chapter and would have been the cliffhanger ending of that particular issue, the Batarang was drawn facing the opposite direction (The depth, placement and severity of the wound will change in the next issue too, but jeez, that’s supposed to be a pivotal moment in the issue, but it’s hard to give oneself over to the drama when one’s eye is drawn to the art mistakes in two adjacent panels).

The writing isn’t all that great either, but, again, there was a pointlessness to the series that precluded it being all that good anyway. Battle of the Cowl was simply marking time between Morrison scripts, giving the most obsessive Batman fans something to buy while the new creative teams assumed their positions and geared up new titles and new directions for old ones.

It’s a three-issue series, and in each issue a different one of the three real contenders for the cowl take turns narrating.

Gotham has apparently gone to hell as soon as Batman “died” (one wonders how the whole city managed to keep its shit together while Batman took that year off in 52), with groups of theme gangs running wild in the streets (Daniel does invent some neat gangs with weird, visual hooks all their own, but we never hear anything about them at all, so they become one more screech in the visual white noise of the book).

Also, Black Mask (who is dead) releases all of the Arkham Asylum inmates (like Bane did in Knightfall) and put some kind of chemical thingee in them to make them serve him while he goes to war with Two-Face and the Penguin.

How many heroes does it take to fill the void Batman left? Well, in addition to Dick Grayson, Tim Drake and Jason Todd, all of these folks make cameos: The Knight and Squire, Black Canary, Wildcat, Man-Bat, Lynx*, Batwoman, Batgirl, Oracle, Huntress, Catwoman, Lady Blackhawk, Owlman, Geo-Force, Halo**, Katana, The Creeper, Metamorpho, Black Lightning, Misfit, Manhunter and Ragman.

How useless are all these folks? It takes about 25 of ‘em to equal one Batman.

Okay, maybe that’s a petty, nerd-centric concern, but that’s the target audience here, right? The sort of fan who will suspend disbelief enough to care about what happened between Point A and Point B of Morrison’s story, right?

I tried, but too much of the story seemed off and hard to match up with what I know of the characters and events from other books. There were just too, too many of those little petty, nerd-centric concerns for me to lose myself in the story at all.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part is the ending, where the most obvious candidate to replace Batman finally does so—and it’s not made explicit he does.

Because Battle for the Cowl employs the personalized narration boxes, in which each narration box is color-coded to reflect the narrator’s costume and or symbol, when Nightwing Dick Grayson assumes the role of Batman, his narration box changes colors and adds a Bat-symbol, so it’s no longer clear that it’s Dick talking, only that it’s Batman.

The last two pages are drawn from the new Batman’s point of view (or, a point of view just behind his head) so we only know that it’s a dark-haired man. So it could be Dick Grayson. Or Jason Todd. Or Tim Drake.

It’s Grayson, of course; DC didn’t really do much to keep that any great mystery, but you couldn’t be sure of that from the story. If you were invested in the mystery of who will be the new Batman, it had to have been a frustrating way to end the series.

That was the end of Battle for the Cowl, but it wasn’t the end of the Batman: Battle for the Cowl hardcover collection, which included two one-shots after Daneil’s series—Gotham Gazette: Batman Dead? #1 and Gotham Gazette: Batman Alive? #1.

Despite the goofy titles and numbering, this was essentially a two-part miniseries in which writer Fabian Nicieza checks in five different Gothamites, each character’s story drawn by a different art team.

Each one opens and closes with narration from The Veil, a spirit-of-the-city type of character introduced by Denny O’Neil and Guillem March in one of the many “Batman R.I.P.” epilogues, her sequences drawn by Dustin Nguyen (The Streets of Gotham artist).

The other Gothamites checked in with include Vicki Vale (as drawn by Gotham City Sirens artist March), Stephanie “The Spoiler” Brown (as drawn by ChrisCross), Dr. Leslie Thompkins (by Jamie McKelvie) and Harvey Bullock (by Alex Konat and Mark McKenna).

None of the stories really stand on their own as complete works, but I don’t think they were meant to either—it’s basically a sampler platter of plot points and conflicts that will be picked up on in other Bat-books during the line’s “Batman: Reborn!” branding effort. As such, it functions fairly well, even though I’m not sure which storylines were picked up where exactly (The Vicki Vale figuring out the Bat-family’s secrets plot, for instance, struck me as the most interesting, but I’m not sure where to look for its continuation).

I don’t know if Nicieza could have done much better with the limited story space and collection of beats to hit than Daniel did in Battle, but he seems to have gotten more of the characters’ voices righter in these vignettes, and certainly each of the artists who drew them were far superior in skill to what Daniel was able to demonstrate in his story.

The result was that as I was reading these segments in the back of the collection, I kept wondering what a Nicieza/March or Nicieza/McKelvie Battle for the Cowl might have looked like.

*I guess. The woman in the white cat mask is supposed to be Lynx right? She died though, so I’m not sure if this is a new Lynx or…what, exactly. I guess I don’t read enough Batman comics to be able to keep up with who’s even alive or dead anymore.

**Huh. I thought she died too.


On the other hand, if it weren’t for Battle for the Cowl, we never would have had the sequence from Tiny Titans that began with this page:


continuityblog said...

While I agree with you about Battle For The Cowl, I wouldn't give up on Daniel just yet. His current run on Batman is actually quite good, and this is coming from someone who absolutely hated every page of Battle for the Cowl.

The Vicki Vale plotline is being continued in Red Robin, and Halo is definitely not dead, I am not sure where you got that.

Vanja said...

Basically, the very idea of collecting something that settles on the blink and miss it superhero minutiae, like "Battle for the cowl" would have been impossible ten years ago. I highly doubt that anyone aside from the completionists will derive any pleasure from this, or even wish to purchase it. In a way, that reminds me of Batman R.I.P. tie-ins.

Esteban138 said...

Well, Battle for the Cowl was what it was: a frozen pizza when your favorite restaurant is closed for the night. It hit the spot at the time, but it was a concession born of desperation. I can't imagine anyone actually buying the trade.

One word in defense of Tony Daniel: you can't say he didn't bring his a-game for Morrison. I mean, his book F-5 (which he wrote and drew) was probably the worst comic I've ever seen and his run on Teen Titans really didn't show that much improvement, but when I first picked up an issue of his Batman, I couldn't believe it was the same Tony Daniel. Obviously he can't run with Grant Morrison the way Frank Quitely or even Cameron Stewart or Chris Weston could, but he certainly did his best on RIP.

I guess that's kind of a half-hearted endorsement, but you can't say the man isn't putting in an effort (unlike, say, Igor Kordey, who really damaged New X-Men so badly I wish those issues could be re-drawn for trade.)

Caleb said...

and Halo is definitely not dead, I am not sure where you got that.

For some reason I thought she was blown up at the end of Infinite Crisis...I think there's a panel or two of various Outsiders getting killed, Technocrat and someone else. I might have just imagined her in the scene though.

Vanja said...

I'm pretty sure that she appears early on in the pages of "52", being a rare character that I didn't recognize at first. We shouldn't consult Wikipedia on this, as it's much more interesting this way - speaking volumes of the impact the Outsiders continuity has had upon all of us.

Tony said...

I was expecting Daniels' writing to be a little worse than it was.

What struck me was the large amount of psychobabble. He'd clearly given a lot of thought to what each character was going through, and what their motivations were. But then he just kind of said it.

I was really pulling for Deadshot to be the gun-toting Batman, rather than Jason Todd.

Stephen said...

>>Also, Black Mask (who is dead) releases all of the Arkham Asylum inmates (like Bane did in Knightfall)...

... and just like Ra's al Ghul in Batman #400. Granted, Ra's also released everyone from Blackgate prison at the same time and left everyone's costumes in the woods for them, but he is Ra's after all. You kind of hold him to a higher standard.