Monday, May 20, 2013

Some thoughts on Batman Incorporated Vol. 1: Demon Star

I've already discussed what may be the craziest aspect of this book, that it's entitled Batman Incorporated Vol. 1, even though it's actually the second volume of Batman Inc, and the previous volume was also labeled Batman Incorporated Vol. 1.

The reason for this is that Batman Inc existed prior to DC's September 2011 reboot of their DCU shared setting into The New 52, so the entire eight-issue series and its over-sized special are all collected in Batman Incorporated Vol. 1, while issues #0 through #7 of the second, New 52 version of the series are collected in this collection.

I don't think publishers realize how difficult it is to follow these books in trade if you don't stay on top of them, probably because the people assembling and marketing the trades are so deeply involved in the month-to-month world of comics they haven't tried catching up on a series in trade before.

I like to think I'm pretty engaged, but I got lost trying to follow the Greg Pak and Greg Van Lente Hercules storyline, which jumped form title to title, when I switched from reading the singles to trade-waiting it, and other multi-book storylines like Jeff Parker's Hulk comics have proven prohibitively confusing for me to catch up on. I can and will figure it out with a few minutes of online research and the help of Wikipedia, probably, but generally before I sit down to order some trades from an online retailer, I'll see something involving less research that I want to read just as badly, and will buy that instead (The most recent example I personally have is trying to read all of Matt Fraction's run on Invincible Iron Man in trades borrowed from various Ohio libraries through inter-library loan programs; there are about a dozen or so volumes, all of the labeled with a volume number, except for the Fear Itself tie-in arc, which not only has no volume number, but also isn't entitled Invincible Iron Man but, rather, Fear Itself: Invincible Iron Man.

So if in a few years someone wants to read Grant Morrison's Batman run, they're going to have to buy trades collecting arcs from Batman (which, if I remember correctly, don't have volume numbers, only sub-titles naming the story arcs collected), Batman and Robin, Final Crisis, the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries, and then Batman Inc Vol. 1, another Batman Inc Vol. 1 and then maybe one or two more volumes.

I guess it's a good thing DC has an official Chronology now.

—This second volume of Batman Inc wasn't a first-wave New 52 book, but came along near the start of DC's second year's worth of New 52 releases.

The reading experience of the trade is much different than that of the way the books were originally published, as the trade begins with issue #0. When they were released as serially-published issues, the series began with issue #1 and was followed by issues #2 and #3 and then #0 was released, with #4 following it.

I thought Morrison did a pretty great job on the script for that #0 issue, as it essentially re-told the story of Batman Inc, recapping the events without repeating anything readers saw the first time around.

If any readers did start with this trade, they would probably be okay-ish, but they'd be missing a lot of rather fun-stuff.

The premise for the #0 issue, and thus the first chapter of the collection, is essentially that of showing Batman Bruce Wayne going around and recruiting his Batmen of Many Nations: Knight and Squire, Dark Ranger, The Batman of Russia seen in Batman and Robin Vol. 1: Born to Kill, Nightrunner (who gets an okay from previous Batman of France, the retiring Cavalier), Chief Man-of-Bats and Red Raven, The Batman of Japan and El Guacho. There's also a scene of Batman and Bruce Wayne explaining the concept, and a splash of his Batman robots being built.

It's a rather elegantly-constructed crash course in Morrison's Batman Inc concept, and having read it this way, I'm finding it hard to imagine how it might have read as originally released.

I don't think #1 offers anywhere near as clear an introduction of the concept, and now I wonder how many new readers decided to sit out the first volume of Batman Inc but pick up Batman Inc (volume 2) #1 and found themselves lost.

—While Chris Burnham draws almost all of issues #1-#7 (save a few pages toward the end, where deadlines apparently got the better of him), Frazier Irving drew the #0 issue.

I don't care for Frazier Irving's art here. I've enjoyed it immensely in the past, but I find the texture of it somewhat sickly, and the faces look overly photo-referenced in this story, with some of the masks not really seeming to quite fit the characters wearing them.

—The continuity on this volume is pretty wonky—mainly in that, like the main, Geoff Johns-written Green Lantern title, so little has changed that what has changed during the reboot stands out as glaring.

Basically, everything Morrison wrote in any of his Bat-titles is expressly still in play and referred back to, all the way back to Talia al Ghul's Man-Bat ninjas and Damian's origin in "Batman and Son."

And a great deal of that continuity isn't really explained at all. One will read it and discover Damian complaining that Grayson was a better partner than Batman (without detailing the fact that Grayson was Batman) or that Bruce Wayne returned from the dead after an absence, without explaining the circumstances of Batman's death and return, and so on.

All that really seems to have changed are Tim Drake's costume—he gets almost no lines, and is a barely-there presence—and no Batgirls are even mentioned.

Batgirl III Stephanie Brown was featured rather prominently in one story from the previous volume of Batman Inc, Batgirl II Cassandra Cain had a small role in her new identity as The Black Bat, and original Batgirl Barbara Gordon had a one-issue spotlight in her Oracle persona, which included a new Batgirl avatar for fighting crime online. None of them are even mentioned here, perhaps because those first two have been wiped out of continuity and Gordon has been de-aged and de-Oracled (Actually, Barbara Gordon does appear in a possible-future storyline, where she's in a wheelchair and is the acting police commissioner of the screwed up future where Damian is Batman, previously glimpsed in Batman #666).

Even more conspicuously absent is Batwoman, whose story doesn't seem to have changed much at all on account of the reboot.

Catwoman, who co-starred in the first issue of the previous volume of Batman Inc is also MIA without explanation.

The Outsiders appear in here too (odd, since DC's new five-year timeline and streamlined JLA history likely excised the bit where Batman quit to form his own team with The Outsiders), but only Freight Train and Halo and Looker (Metamorpho is name-checked, though).

—Speaking of The Outsiders, when Metamorpho is mentioned, it's in a reference to Morrison's first arc of JLA, a storyline which John's Justice League comics make clear never "happened." This is a book best-enjoyed without thinking much at all about the New 52 or the various continuity reboots, as it is quite clearly set in the old DCU, with nothing but minor cosmetic changes and casting choices alleging that it's set after Flashpoint at all.

—That said, this book at least acknowledges the existence of Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason's Batman and Robin title, as the Batman of Russia is included, the events of that book (in which Damian is forced into killing another villain after swearing to never do so again) are mentioned and the dog Damian acquires in it shows up in the Batcave. (I haven't read any other New 52 Bat-books yet, so I don't know how well it lines up with Batman, TEC or any of the secondary titles).

—It's hard for me to wrap my head around a DC Universe in which Wally West and Donna Troy do not exist, but Freight Train does.

—Chris Burnham is awesome.

There's a touch of Frank Quitely in his work, and he's given to flights of structural fancy, leading to many extremely inventive panels and lay-outs. Sometimes that invention doesn't really add anything and can look a bit show off-y, but I suppose when you're that good, there's nothing wrong with showing off. He's got all the basics mastered, and this works just like it's supposed to.

The image above is an extremely poorly cropped part of one of his pages. Look at the detail in that panel; it's a panel one can linger over if one wants to, sussing out each detail. Kids don't really buy comics from grocery stores with their allowances or anything anymore, but this is the kind of comic that would reward such a purchase by someone with a severely limited comics-buying budget, as there's so much more value in a panel like that then, you know, most panels in most other comic books.

I am now curious what Burnham will be up to when Morrison leaves and Batman Inc ends, but I sure hope it involves drawing Batman, and drawing good Batman comics by a good writer that I want to read.

I see that Burnham is writing as well as drawing one of the short stories in August's Batman Incorporated special, which Tom Bonudrant recently theorized might be a trail balloon to gauge interest in a Morrison-less iteration of Batman Inc. Maybe if Burnham writes as well as he draws—or even half as good as he draws—his next assignment might be continuing the Morrison-recreated Club of Heroes in some manner...?

—I have to call bullshit on a few instances of Batman disguises though.

Apparently this big-ass Batman, seen in this panel...
...somehow fit into that little old lady costume he's clutching in his right fist, and, when he was wearing it, he looked like this:
And, in another issue, while Batman's in his Matches Malone disguise/identity, Dick Grayson dresses up as Batman so Bats and Matches can appear in the same place at the same time, and Dick's Batman is this much bigger than Bruce's Matches?
Bullshit. Beautifully, beautifully drawn bullshit.

—I like the robot bat thing—a robat?—that the future Damian Batman had. I wish I had a copy of Dark Knight Returns here in my apartment with me at the moment, because it looks awfully similar to something I remember—or imagine—appeared in either DKR or maybe Dark Knight Strikes Again, but now I'm not sure. Morrison and Burnham do use Frank Miller's mutants as a group of street thugs that Batman and Robin beat up in one scene.

—The cliffhanger ending of this volume was a very powerful argument against trade-waiting. It ended with one of my favorite members of Batman Inc seemingly dying and, in the very last panel, a mysterious antagonist apparently throwing Batman to his death.

Now obviously Batman isn't going to die, and I'm pretty sure the guy they show actually dying really will die (cover solicitations for future issues seem to promise that he will), but I still want to see how Batman doesn't die, and learn who exactly this mysterious servant of Talia's actually is and how he got to be so bad-ass.

But, instead of having to wait 30 days or so, I now have to wait, like, six to eight months until the next volume of the comic comes out in collected form.

As frustrating as it is from a fan perspective, I suppose it served as a nice reminder that the single best way a publisher can combat trade-waiting and promote serial issue purchasing is to make really, really good comics that a reader can't wait for.

This is probably the only superhero comic book I currently feel that way about.


Dean said...

Batman is obviously inflatable. He just lets some air out when he needs to disguise himself as a little old lady or Matches Malone.

Jer said...

While I was reading this book I came to the conclusion that Morrison basically tried to figure out how to re-jigger his story as little as possible in order to make it fit into the "New 52" world while not changing anything about the previous stories. I was glad about that, because I actually want to be able to read his Batman run the way I read his X-men run - as a self-contained run where I can ignore the stupid things going on in the rest of the publisher's arsenal if I want to (his JLA run is close to this, but Electric Blue Superman and a few other flavors of the month get in the way).

So if in a few years someone wants to read Grant Morrison's Batman run, they're going to have to buy trades collecting arcs from Batman (which, if I remember correctly, don't have volume numbers, only sub-titles naming the story arcs collected), Batman and Robin, Final Crisis, the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries, and then Batman Inc Vol. 1, another Batman Inc Vol. 1 and then maybe one or two more volumes.

Well, no. What they'll do is buy the newest compilation volumes that DC puts out like The Black Glove Deluxe Edition, which includes both the older "Batman & Son" and "Black Glove" trades in one volume.

The Batman:RIP Deluxe Edition is already in that format, as was the Batman:Return of Bruce Wayne volume (and really the first Batman: Incorporated volume). I suspect that we'll see (two?) Deluxe Edition collections of the Batman & Robin volumes (with the Time & The Batman Morrison stories included) and the "proper" numbering on the final Batman:Inc Deluxe volume(s) as well.

Just like DC has done with Morrison's JLA run and All-Star Superman - once the run is done I'm positive they'll work out an "evergreen" format to keep them on the shelves in a single bundle so that nobody has to scrounge to try to figure out what the actual order on the volumes is.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Freight Train was created by Dan DiDio, that's why he's around.And aside from the Metamorpho reference, Halo and Looker can appear in some panels as just lovely women. They're not wearing capes.

I buy the individual issues, then give them to a friend's son once I have the HC. The scene with Batman in disguise as the old woman is almost drawn exactly as it was in one of the Denny O'Neil issues of Batman, down to the passengers. Cool on Burnham for that.

My favorite thumb in your nose to DC was Batman going back to his old DC grey costume, for a few issues, the mandate was to keep in in the nu52 costume.

You'll enjoy the next trades.