Monday, October 12, 2015

On Batman Vol. 7: Endgame

Batman Vol. 7: Endgame collects writer Scott Snyder, pencil artist Greg Capullo and inker Danny Miki's five-issue story arc of the same name, which ran from issues #35 through #40 of their ongoing monthly Batman title (plus 14 wildly divergent variant covers in a gallery in the back). Marketed, sold and told as a sort of last Batman story, or a last Joker story, or at least a last Batman versus The Joker story, it featured the unexpected (by the characters, not the readers) return of The Joker for a final, apocalyptic showdown against the Batman, one that could literally destroy Gotham City and actually begins with The Joker taking the entire Justice League off the board (A one-issue Batman vs. The Justice League story that also served the purpose of explaining why Batman didn't just call his friend Superman in to save the day at the well as presenting a cool Batman vs. The League fight, and letting Capullo draw some of the other iconic DC characters. This made up the bulk of the special issue DC and comic shops were giving away for free on last month's "Batman Day").

Constructed as a deliberate parallel of Snyder and company's own "Death of the Family," it features The Joker with a brand new joke–an elaborate "Is he telling the truth, or is he lying?" mind-fuck for Batman and the Bat-Family–and ends with the same single syllable phrase that "Death" ended with. I actually really liked the "joke" here, and the way that Synder sells it so completely, so that a reader can read it the same way Batman might–Either The Joker is telling the truth, and he's actually an extremely different character with an extremely different nature than anyone ever thought, or he's lying to mess with Batman, but doing a damn fine job of doing it and getting under Batman's skin. The way I read the ending, The Joker revealed that he didn't believe his own story (the same way it fell apart at the climax of "Death of the Family" when Batman confronted him with it), whereas Batman seemed to at least believe a part of it, although he was also clearly taunting The Joker (sorry I'm being vague; I'm trying not to spoil it too much).

I think this is somewhat undermined by the early chapters of "Endgame," however. In "Death," The Joker was convincing Batman's allies that he knew who Batman really was and who they all were, thanks to having infiltrated the Batcave during a very early battle with Batman. Batman, who knew it was impossible for an ordinary human being to infiltrate the cave in that manner–it would have involved swimming a great distances underwater, longer than anyone could hold their breath–knew The Joker was lying, but the lie nevertheless helped drive a wedge between him and his allies.

However, in "Endgame" we find out that The Joker, contrary to the events of "Death" (both the climax where the book of secrets is shown to be blank and the denoument wherein Batman told Alfred how he knew The Joker didn't know, or even care, who he really was), really does know who Batman really is.

I wanted to share a few thoughts and observations I had while reading the story, which is an extremely engaging one, that, like Snyder's best Batman stories, really sunk its hooks in me, and I couldn't stop reading once I started. I've tried to stay spoiler-lite in the above paragraphs, as I don't really believe in spoilers (I mean, you are reading someone discussing the book and all), but I'll include a warning just because it seems to be superhero comic-writing-about-etiquette: I'm going to discuss specific plot points below, so if you haven't yet read "Endgame" serially or picked up the recently-released collection, and don't want to know what occurs within its pages, don't read the rest of this post. Please come back after you have read "Endgame" though; it should still be here.

A Joker-ized Justice League vs. Batman is actually something I've thought about before, in a "Hey, that would be a cool story kind of way." Probably at least since the Joker's Last Laugh event, in which Joker uses a specialized version of his venom/gas to "Joker-ize" various villains, creating a bunch of bad-buys with his sense of humor and look (I've noted before that I really like temporary, story-specific character re-designs, as those in Blackest Night; there's something cool about seeing a very familiar costume or character in a fresh color or look).

In my mind, a Joker-ized Justice League would of course wear purple and green instead of their normal colors, but that wouldn't really work here, as the drama in that first chapter is the slow reveal of why the Justice League is suddenly trying to murder their colleague Batman for no reason, and it's only at the very end that we learn that it's The Joker behind it. Superman is the only one standing long enough to reveal other symptoms of Jokerization, including whitening skin and a rictus grin.

It was amusing to see Batman break out his Justice League Fighting Protocols here, and see that they are so different from past Justice League Fighting Protocols, like those Mark Waid helped him think up in the "Tower of Babel" story arc from Waid's JLA run, or the more recent ones from Geoff Johns' Justice League/Forever Evil (in which Batman kept a special briefcase stamped with each Leaguer's logo containing an item to take them out with.

The Joker's elaborate joke/lie here is that he's not exactly human, and is something of an immortal...or at least centuries old, and able to recover from the most grievous mortal wounds (he grew his own face back, for example). This is first revealed through a series of historical newspaper photos, in which a pale or grinning man appears at the scenes of various Gotham City tragedies: The Joker as Slender Man, I suppose. (The character explaining all of this alludes to Vandal Savage and Ra's al Ghul without naming them, although Capullo draws them; the idea is that The Joker discovered a very rare, naturally occurring substance in pre-Gotham that grants a form of immortality, and internalized it...the substance in the Lazarus pits is a degraded form of the substance).

The Joker takes it very far, even saying he had to use make-up and muscle-relaxers while The (original) Red Hood, as this new origin of his would predate his original "origin," and this explains his decades-long ability to constantly escape death, and is in keeping with Grant Morrison's conception of him as an ever-evolving villain, with a different schtick and portrayal during successive appearances.

Again, Snyder keeps it ambiguous here, with Julia Pennyworth noting that if the pictures were doctored, they were done so better than any other photo-doctoring she had seen (Which is, of course, just another way of saying they could be doctored). Batman is fairly convinced, by the climax, that The Joker is just messing with him, although he does seem to equivocate a bit during his "last" words. The Joker, for his part, doesn't seem to buy it; after suffering mortal wounds, he desperately tries to crawl to a pool of the substance, with Batman holding him back, telling him he doesn't need it, since he's internalized it (So: Either the Joker discovered this pool centuries ago, and is an immortal, infernal entity haunting and harming Gotham throughout its entire history, or he discovered this pool shortly after the end of "Death," and then used it to heal his face and wounds...and then concoct this elaborate plan).

–This story, by the way, should make whatever Geoff Johns is planning in "Darkseid War," wherein Batman learns the Joker's true identity thanks to the Moebius Chair of Metron, interesting. Assuming, of course, that Johns is planning on doing something with that revelation, other than having Batman ask, find out, and then later forget when he's inevitably separated from the chair and loses his surely temporary godhood.

–It should probably go without saying at this point, but this is one of the many, many stories that would actually have worked far better in the old, pre-New 52 DC Universe. There, Batman and The Joker had been fighting one another for what would have seemed like forever to readers (at least ten years, in-continuity, perhaps longer in various readers' "head" continuity). Here though, Batman and The Joker have only been doing their dance about seven years now, and that's if you include the Bruce Wayne/Red Hood Gang conflict from "Zero Year."

We've only seen a few Joker vs. Batman stories actually dramatized–"Death of The Family," whatever the hell Tony Daniel was doing in Detective #1, a few flashbacks in other Batman adjacent books–and we know The Killing Joke and "A Death In The Family" still happened...or at least the events in them happened, just in different ways than in the stories themselves (goddam stupid reboot; these would be two good examples of DC's new "secret" continuity, wherein stories tell us that some stories happened, but in drastically altered ways that differ from the stories you can still find, buy and read in pre-Flashpoint comics and collections). Even though the outcome of both stories was reversed. Andy Kubert even drew variant covers for issues of this story arc depicting The Joker's roles in those two stories, for what it's worth (see above).

The Penguin, Man-Bat, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, The Mad Hatter, Clayface, Bane and Mister Freeze have all fought Batman at least three times more often than The Joker in post-reboot Batman history; The Scarecrow has probably fought Batman ten times as often as The Joker.

–What ringtone has Jim Gordon assigned to Batman on his cellphone...? Well, it includes the lyrics "I fought the law," so it is either The Bobby Fuller Four's 1966 "I Fought The Law", or The Clash's 1979 cover of it or the 1987 Dead Kennedys cover of it.

I would imagine Gordon was more of a Bobby Fuller man, but maybe in the New 52, wherein we have a younger, fitter Gordon, he's more into The Clash.

I can't imagine it's the Dead Kennedys version, although I suppose it's possible. The major difference between their version and the earlier versions–well, one difference–is that the original line of "I fought the law, and the law won" is changed to "I fought the law, and I won." Given their version's real-life inspiration, I suppose it's possible that at this point in Gordon's career–in which he just spent a long-ass time in Blackgate prison for a crime he didn't commit–he's a bit down on the justice system.

–So, were you wondering if and when DC would update goofy villain Crazy Quilt, originally created by Jack Kirby in Boy Commandos, and then later adopted by Blackhawk and Batman as a villain, into a darker, grimmer, grittier version? Wonder no more!

There were two guys named Crazy Quilt; Kirby's original one from the 1940s and a later one that surfaced in the 1970s and '80s in Gotham City. That second one had a helmet that restored his messed-up vision and shot laser beams and controlled minds and stuff, because why not?

Snyder and Capullo's reinvention of the character is about as banal as can be: He's a crazy guy who wears a quilt.
They never even use the name "Crazy Quilt," making his appearance in the comic something of an Easter Egg or inside joke. When Batman talks to Dick Grayson about him via Bat-radio, Batman refers to a Dr. Paul Dekker, and Grayson responds, "Huh. Paul Dekker? AKA--"

Batman cuts him off before Grayson can say whatever was meant to follow "AKA"–"Crazy Quilt," presumably–by saying "Yes" and continuing his explanation.

–Probably my unintentionally favorite part of the book after the introduction of Dark Crazy Quilt came during Batman's talk with Grayson.

"Joker knows who I am," Batman tells him grimly, to which Grayson responds, "It's over, then. I mean...over. There's no staving it off. No barrier to it."

Guys, I'm pretty sure everyone in the whole world knows that Batman is really Bruce Wayne now. Remember Forever Evil, when The Crime Syndicate publicly unmasked Batman ally and Gotham-based vigilante Nightwing as Bruce Wayne's ward Dick Grayson on live television, putting his driver's on the screen and everything? I know Lex Luthor is the only one who came out and said it, but how hard would it be to connect Nightwing's friend and sponsor to Batman, especially since Bruce Wayne is publicly known to fund Batman?

Still, they both act like this is a big deal, and not, like something anyone with a television set or Internet access would have put together months ago.

–As the story reaches its climax, Joker's new toxin, which essentially turns people into Joker-themed zombies, is spreading throughout the city, and he takes to the streets at the head of a big, weird parade, the various floats assembled from stolen trophies from the Batcave, and skull and skeleton-themed costumes.

As far as I can recall at the moment, this is the first and only direct allusion to the climax of the parade sequence in Batman '89; Capullo even draws a few parade balloons in a vaguely Tim Burton-designed style, like those in the Nicholson Joker's parade.

No Prince music, though.

–So Alfred Pennyworth, attempting to defend the Batcave from The Joker's infiltration, has his right hand chopped off with a meat cleaver. I...did not care for this scene, which didn't really serve any real purpose other than adding another notch in the Joker's belt of scarring Batman's allies (although Jason Todd came back to life and Barbara Gordon regained the use of her legs, so those notches aren't as deep as they were pre-New 52).

What I most dislike about the maiming, however, is the scene at the end of the book. Alfred is laying in a bed–presumably a hospital bed–two weeks after Batman/Bruce Wayne seemingly dies in a battle to the death with The Joker, and his daughter Julia mentions his hand to him.

"I know this isn't what you'd like to talk about, but your hand. They've managed to preserve it until now, but if you don't--"

Alfred cuts her off, saying "No. There's no one to mend anymore."

Okay, so he believe Batman Bruce Wayne is dead at that point. And he believe Dick Grayson, who replaced Batman as Batman II after the events of "Batman R.I.P."/Final Crisis (still in-continuity, in that kinda sorta "secret continuity" way) is dead. And Robin Damian Wayne is still dead.* Still. If Alfred really thinks the only point of having two hands is to mend the wounds of Batmen, well, he has to assume Jason Todd or Tim Drake are going to start dressing like Bats within a few weeks.

And even if he's not thinking about the fact that he's going to need to stitch up any of Gotham's vigilantes, it's a really weird, defeatist attitude for Alfred to have, no matter how depressed and defeated he must feel. Hell, maintaining that mustache is going to be rough with just one hand...

–As Batman believes the main ingredient needed to concoct a cure to The Joker's gas attack is The Joker's own spinal fluid, he prepares to storm The Joker's parade, which means taking on an army of Joker zombies (referred to as "Gigglers" by Batgirl at one point).

He assembles his allies and...that's it? Okay, so Dick Grayson is faking his death and Robin Damian is apparently actually still dead at this point, but what a paltry turn out! Where's Batwoman? Catwoman? Spoiler? Talon? (Is Talon dead? I haven't seen or heard from him in a while.) Batwing/Luke Fox? Jim Corrigan? Anyone from Batman, Inc? Tim's equally badly dressed allies?

For comparison's sake, here's who showed up to help Batman against the Final Boss in the final issue of Batman Eternal:
(If you didn't read Batman Eternal, and are wondering who the guy laying on the ground is, that's Batman; he had to make a makeshift mask after having his costume cut off of him.)

–Batman does call in some more help than the four shown in that above panel, though. He talks these guys into pitching in, too.
I liked this panel, in large part because it gave Capullo a chance to draw a healthy swathe of Batman's rogue's gallery.

It's a motley lot, to be sure, but it's easy enough to see Killer Croc, who helped Batman out in Batman Eternal, and Poison Ivy, who did a recent stint with the New 52 version of Birds of Prey, pitching in. Mister Freeze and Bane are also bad guys who aren't that bad, on the scale of Batman villain bad-ness, anyway.

The Penguin I could only really see pitching in out of self-interest, but one might expect him to have the soldiers in his organization do the actual fighting.

The Scarecrow is the only one who seems to be completely out of place here, as it's hard to imagine him lifting a finger to save Gotham City, especially if it meant risking his own life as it does.

I don't like Capullo's version of The Scarecrow here, which seems to mix the standard New 52 re-design with that of those Arkham videogames, and I kind of hate his Penguin. I don't get why so many artist draw that character simply as a little fat guy in a nice suit or tux all the time. Where's the monocle? The tophat? The umbrella? The guy is packign tons of heat, even a utility belt, but he's leaning on some kind of machine gun, rather than an umbrella-shaped machine gun? For shame, Capullo; for shame.

To be fair, at the opening of the next chapter, we do see The Penguin in the fray, fighting with an umbrella.


Wait, how the hell did all of these guys get out of Arkham Manor and/or Blackgate at the same time...?

Oh Batman, you are the worst crimefighter.

–"Here's the facts"...? Surely Batman would say "Here are the facts" instead, wouldn't he?

–I am enjoying the aftermath of this storyline, which you probably all know, even if you haven't been reading Batman. To fill the void left by Batman, who did die a death of sorts at the climax of "Endgame," The Gotham City Police Department hired James Gordon to wear a high-tech Batman battle-suit with dumb ears to be the new, officially-sanctioned Batman of Gotham City.

I like this because it was and is so incredibly unexpected. Rather than Dick coming back to don the suit, or Jason or Tim taking a turn, or even Julia Pennyworth (my first guess for who the new Batman would be, when DC first teased images of the robot Batman suit), Snyder went with one of Batman's oldest allies...and the least likely to ever go masked crimefighter. (Well, least likely aside from Alfred Pennyworth.)

It's outside the box, but it's outside the box in a completely unexpected way. Like, I would have imagined Superman, Aquaman, J'onn J'onnz or El Gaucho putting on a Batman suit before I would have imagined a Jim Gordon-as-Batman-by-way-of-Robocop scenario.

What you might not know if you've only paid marginal attention is that Bruce Wayne did not physically die, but came back to life...albeit with a sort of amazing amnesia. Essentially, his brain is completely different than it was before he "died." I think his wounds must have been healed by the miracle goop in the pool beneath Gotham somehow, but a side effect is that Bruce Wayne has no memory of having ever been Batman...and has lot all of his fighting and detective skills to boot.

But he got a beard in the bargain.

The result is that, as I believe Snyder has framed it a few times, a story about "What if Batman died, and Bruce Wayne came back to life?"

Not only does it mean that Snyder, Capullo and company are doing something completely different and new with Batman, but they've painted themselves into the same kind of corner that the Superman office has done with the other half of the World's Finest, by revealing Superman's secret identity to the world. It should prove incredibly challenging to un-do.

In both cases, I have to imagine they already have their outs planned, as Gordon can't be Batman forever, nor can Superman's secret identity be publicly known forever, but, as a reader, it's difficult to imagine easy solutions that are still dramatically satisfying for these problems, which is something of a feat. The characters have been around so long that there's no real tension or suspense in whether or not they'll ever die during their many dangerous adventures against deadly foes, and even if these particular situations are known to be temporary, the hows they get out of them does make for genuinely compelling questions.

*You know, I actually have no idea how Damian's resurrection must fit into this story. Damian is clearly not present in the story at all, so he is presumably still dead, or dead-ish, during the events of "Endgame." But since Batman "dies" during the "Endgame," then his resurrection story in the pages of Batman and Robin must have occurred prior to this, right? Huh. I haven't read those trades yet, so I'm not exactly sure of the hows of Damian's return to life, but I can't synch these two story arcs up.

No comments: