Sunday, December 27, 2009

Review: Batman: Cacophony

I see Kevin Smith has gotten pretty rusty in the three years since he wrote a comic book.

About ten years ago, Smith was responsible for some rather high-profile, extremely well-received comics work, including some stuff for Oni Press based on his film characters, a Daredevil story arc for Marvel that helped return the character to some prominence, and a short, 15-issue run on Green Arrow for DC. He seemingly disappeared from comics around 2002 or so, leaving one project half-finished (Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do) and another just begun (Daredevil: The Target).

He reappeared and finished the second half of his Spider-Man miniseries in 2006, but it was hardly worth the wait—four years of not writing comics hadn’t made Smith any better of a comics writer. He returned to DC a few years after that, with Batman: Cacophony, which may just be his weakest comics work to date.

It’s pretty poor, reading like a published version of a first draft for a miniseries—it’s formless, badly paced and meandering. Many of the characters sound off, including the title character, which is something of an accomplishment. Along with The Fantastic Four’s Ben “The Thing” Grimm, Batman is perhaps the most recognizable, easy-to-get “voice” in superhero comics. One seemingly doesn’t need to write Batman’s dialogue so much as ask Batman what he’d like to say in this panel.

It doesn’t help at all that Smith is here paired with his weakest artistic collaborator to date, pencil artist Walt Flanagan (whose name, if its familiar, you may recognize from the expression “faster than Walt Flanagan’s dog” in one of Smith’s films). Flanagan’s drawn comics before, but he’s not punching in the same weight class as, say, Phil Hester, the last pencil artist Smith wrote a DC super-book for. The reason he drew the book, as Smith himself explains in the collection’s very Kevin Smith-y introduction, is that he’s Smith’s friend.

Cacophony is all around poor-bordering-on-amateurish work, and yet you can’t really blame DC for publishing it. Kevin Smith’s name may not command the sales it once did (he refers to himself as “persona non grata in the comics community,” due to “incessant lateness”), and Flanagan may not be the best possible artist for a Batman comic, but if Smith wanted to do a three-issue, throwaway story arc, the sort of thing that DC generally publishes in Batman Confidential in the hopes of moving 20-to-30K units to retailers and, if they’re lucky, produce an evergreen Batman trade, well, why the hell not? Even a fallen Kevin Smith is likely to sell twice as many issues as a Tony Bedard or Peter Milligan or Doug Moench or Fabian Nicieza or whoever they’ve got doing that month’s least-important Batman story. And hell, Flanagan knows how to draw a comics page, and is conversant in the medium—he’s better than some of the guys DC’s had drawing the main, flagship Batman title over the course of the last few eyars.

As I said, there’s an introduction to this collection (Hooray! I love introductions), and in it Smith addresses his getting Flanagan the gig in a Smith-y way—it’s a sweet, charming story of friendship that naturally leads to a gay joke:

So here we were: two comics-lovin’ dudes from the Jersey ‘burbs who both fulfilled dreams of making funny books. But we’d never done it together (y’know, a comic book; not “whoopee”).

Smith also talks a bit about Batman, whom he wrote rather extensively into his first Green Arrow story arc, “Quiver,” and was, it was announced once upon a time, supposedly going to write in a Brave and the Bold series that never materialized. Smith said he had lost the desire to write comic books, but found his love of Batman reignited by The Dark Knight, and hence this project came along (Cynical reading: He saw how successful The Dark Knight was, realized he had an in and wanted some of that sweet, sweet Bat-money).

The result was Cacophony, which was originally sold as the secret origin of Onomatopoeia, a mysterious (and kinda clever) villain that Smith dreamed up for the end of his run on Green Arrow. Instead, it turned out to be a weird, zigzagging storyline in which the characters pass through, as The Joker fights Maxie Zeus, Batman fights The Joker, and then Batman and The Joker have a long, heartfelt relationship talk.

It opens with a mysterious figure with a smooth, round black head and wearing a trenchcoat, thus looking an awful lot like O., breaking into Arkham Asylum, while Smith’s verbose narration explains how the economy has impacted the asylum and helped this stranger break in.

It turns out that he’s not O., but Deadshot, who’s the fifteenth or so assassin hired to kill The Joker. Before he can do the deed, Onomatopoeia shows up and apparently shoots Deadshot dead…the old my villain is so formidable that he can take out the villain you thought was at the top of the heap in like nothing flat trick.

Onomatopoeia frees The Joker, who immediately goes after Maxie Zeus, a crazy costumed criminal who has seemingly gone legit, but who is actually selling a party drug derived from Joker Venom (I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen a story where Joker Venom is used as a party drug, but it certainly feels like I’ve read dozens of stories where various villain poisons and super-stuff are used as the sources for designer drugs—Brad Meltzer having the Signal Man hooked on Scarecrow gas in JLoA is the last one that springs to mind).

After taking on Mr. Zsasz, the one-off villain from that has proved to be Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s most enduring gift to Batman writers, Batman gets involved, and after a climatic battle between Batman, The Joker and Onomatopoeia on the roof of police headquarters, Batman is given his 297th chance to either let The Joker die by inaction or save his life.

The crux of the story comes after, as Batman and The Joker have an eight-page chat in the hospital, followed by a short, four-page sequence revealing Onomatopoeia’s home life.

Smith is still an overly wordy comics writer. In fact, he seems to be an overly wordy writer in general, as his movies are incredibly talky, but the excess verbiage is no vice in film, where one hears the words, rather than sees them all gathered in once place, eclipsing the art.

There are some panels, particularly in the first issue, which look a little like those on this page (Not that Batman: Cacophony #1 is as bad as Batgirl #1…it’s not good, but it’s not that bad), and Smith still hasn’t quite mastered a golden ratio between words and pictures.

It’s also awfully crude and/or unpleasant for an all-ages Batman story.

In the first issue, The Joker jokes with Deadshot about his green pubic wig, and mentions that the Asylum cuts out “The Family Circus” from the funny pages because it riles up the inmates that “like to touch children.” When presented with a suitcase of money by Onomatopoeia, he pulls down his pants, bends over against a tree and asks that O. not tell The Mad Hatter, as “That midget’s been tyring to get me to do this for years now, and I told him I don’t swing” that way. A badly off-model, out-of-character Zsasz is about to mutilate his own penis when Batman jumps through a skylight, thinking, “I crash Zsasz’s unholy briss. Baruch haba, SCUMBAG.” When rattling off a list of what he wants to Zeus, The Joker includes “and to one day murder Batman and defile his carcass sexually.”

That’s just the first issue, or first third of this collection, and I sort of quit paying attention after that (although the finale includes a rather random bit, in which The Joker mentions to Batman that he “saw a little bit of your junk” when the Dark Knight was changing out of a disguise and into his Bat-costume behind a curtain.)

I’ve complained about DC’s inclusion of discussion of heinous sex crimes and (attempts at) sex humor in their DCU books so often that I’m sick of hearing me talk about it too, but this is yet another rather striking example of the publisher refusing to label anything outside the Vertigo line for “Mature Readers” and then proceeding to try and stuff square mature story pegs into their round holes, the ultimate result being that the books read exceptionally juvenile. It’s kind of like watching an R-rated movie cleaned up and dubbed for broadcast on network TV,

The most interesting bit of the book is that conversation between Batman and The Joker, in which Smith takes his stab at trying to explain their relationship and why neither’s killed the other yet—do they even want to kill each other?

The idea is that The Joker is pumped so full of morphine and “an ass-load of mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics” that he’s “momentarily psychologically balanced,” so Batman wants to ask him, “Do you really want me dead? Do you really want to kill me?”

Batman reveals that he doesn’t want The Joker to die, if for no other reason than that he doesn’t ever want to see someone die in front of him again (which probably makes spending his whole life in the pursuit of serial killers a less-than-ideal career choice). He even goes so far as to reveal that that’s the reason he’s Batman; to prevent deaths.

The Joker says he does want to kill Batman, and that that’s the reason he kills so many people, and the reason he’s crazy at all. Once Batman’s dead, The Joker says, he’ll quit being The Joker (So shouldn’t Batman just kill himself, to save thousands of future lives, if he can’t bring himself to kill The Joker to save thousands of future lives…?)

I say it’s an interesting scene, and it is from the perspective of seeing a writer with a fairly individual voice wrestle with one of the more artificial aspects of one of our most prominent superheroes, an aspect plenty of other writers have wrestled with and come to different conclusions regarding.

But it doesn’t quite seem to belong in this story, as very little leading up to it mattered–the first two and a half issues were essentially just random events necessary to get a knife in The Joker’s chest to set up yet another choice of whether to save him or not for Batman. (I also question the choice to render The Joker temporarily sane through drugs—mental health is treated so bizarrely in Batman comics that it’s almost necessary to completely ignore it, or at least think of Arkham’s inmates as “mad” in a Victorian or gothic novel sort of way, rather than clinically insane in a real world way. Because, really, if all you need to do to The Joker to make him mostly insane is to pump him full of drugs, why isn’t he constantly being pumped full of drugs? Even if there are laws against forcibly drugging genocidal madmen against their will, why doesn’t Batman just break into Arkham and drug The Joker each night? It sure would solve a lot of problems and save a lot of lives).

As for Onomatopoeia, his presence in this story is completely unnecessary. His M.O. when he first appeared in Green Arrow was as a villain who stalked normal, non-super-powered superheroes. The Green Arrows certainly fit that bill. Apparently, he visited Gotham—a damn fertile hunting ground—to take on Batman, and The Joker was simply bait for Batman (Hmm, if you can’t take down either Green Arrow, why would you go after Batman? Why not start in Gotham with an Obsidian or Azrael or Huntress or Pagan or someone and work your way up to Batman?)

What do we learn about Onomatopoeia? Nothing, other than the fact that under his mask and coat he’s apparently a normal, boring-looking family man who dresses up to try and kill vigilantes as a hobby. Panels show him greeting his family at a small, two-story home with a picket fence as he seemingly returns from vacation, checks his mail, and puts away his costume in his secret room.

Flanagan, who is inked by Sandra Hope and colored by Guy Major, improves by leaps and bounds in the space of these 90-ish pages, so that his Joker and Batman resemble Graham Nolan-esque versions during their conversation at the end, but even the that improvement is a sign that he probably wasn’t ready for this project yet, if his style is still so fluid and developing.

Like I said, he’s hardly the worst Batman artist around, and is better than some of the guys drawing the character these days, but his character’s are often off-model, even the models he himself has established in the book. If he is still improving, as the work within seems to indicate, then his current collaboration with Smith (the limited series Batman: The Widening Gyre, which Smith’s introduction promises is much better than Cacophony) is probably a better, more polished comic…and the one after that will be better still.


Tony said...

"try and stuff square mature story pegs into their round holes"

That really sounded dirty to me. I probably need to read fewer DC comics.

Anonymous said...

Onomatopoeia going "weeeooooo, weeeeooooh" in the bushes was my favourite part.