Friday, December 04, 2015

Review: Batman vs. Superman: The Greatest Battles

The usual disclaimer regarding collections of superhero comics purporting to tell the greatest or best stories is that they tend to be the greatest or best short, one-issue stories, in order to fit in a collection (For example, "Batman: Year One" may be one of the greater Batman stories ever told, but at over 100 pages, it's far too long to ever be included in a collection of greatest Batman stories, as it's a collection unto itself).

The new Batman vs. Superman: The Greatest Battles is a rare exception, however, as it is almost exclusively made from pieces of longer, trade collection-length story arcs (all of which are readily available in trade), taken out of the context of their home story arcs. It reads a bit like a trade version of a TV clip show then, it's focus on big name creators--Jim Lee (twice), Scott Snyder, Geoff Johns, Frank Miller, Greg Capullo and Jeph Loeb (plus John Byrne, Joe Kelly and Ed Benes, none of whom are actually mentioned on the back cover extolling the creators whose work is included).

It doesn't really fulfill the mandate of its title--these are not the greatest Superman vs. Batman battles, of which there are so goddam many I've long ago lost count--but they are (mostly) the 1.) Greatest Superman vs. Batman battles, 2.) by the most popular creators, 3.) that you can buy other trades including the rest of the story arcs they are part of (although that doesn't make as good a title, huh?)

Let's take a look at the contents, which appear under a repurposed Jim Lee cover from Batman #612 (part of the "Hush" storyline) which seems a poor choice in that it clearly shows Superman unequivocally winning the great battle, and a repurposed use of the old Superman/Batman combo logo).

Batman #612 (2003)
By Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee and Scott Williams

The fifth chapter of Loeb and Lee's "Hush" storyline, which is basically Loeb presenting Lee with a story that allows him to draw every major villain and hero in the Batman franchise, before the narrative collapses nonsensically at the end. At this relatively early part of the story, Batman and Catwoman have trailed Poison Ivy to Metropolis, where she has used her mind-control powers over men (and Kryptonite-laced lipstick) to take control of The Man of Steel.

Batman must use all of his guile, gadgets, planning and knowledge of Superman to fight him to a standstill, although in a nice touch, Superman actually helps Batman, by fighting Ivy's control mentally while fighting Batman physically...and, of course, he had previously given Batman a weapon specifically for beating him up should he ever be mind-controlled like this, the Kryptonite ring (which Loeb and Lee have concealed in a neat, Kryptonite ring-holding secret compartment behind Batman's belt-buckle.

Ultimately, it takes Batman and Superman to beat Superman--with an assist from Catwoman and Lois. This also includes a few panels of Krypto, in a very unexpected cameo (sorry; I spoiled this 12-year-old story! Hey, while I'm at it, wanna know who Hush is...?), who has a nice panel with Catwoman, who is not exactly a dog person.

This is of course collected in Batman: Hush, which has been collected and re-collected repeatedly since its original publication (and which I'd recommend with reservations; as a sort of ultimate, everyone appears Batman story, it's solid, and Lee gets to draw the living hell out of every corner of the Batman universe circa the early '00s. It also has probably the best post-resurrection Jason Todd costume ever, although it's not really Jason Todd...or it wasn't, until Judd Winick said it was...Eh, let's not get into it here).

Re-re-re-reading the story, I noticed that it offered a pretty good example at how poor a writer Jeph Loeb can be, despite the strengths of the plot. Check out this bit of Batman narration:
I don't believe in luck. But if I would be a good time to start.
That...doesn't make any sense at all. If he already believed in luck, then he wouldn't need to start believing in luck, because he'd already believe in luck.

Stick to producing excellent-ish Netflix series based on street-level Marvel heroes, Loeb!

Winner: Batman...with an assist from Superman

Man of Steel #3 (1986)
By John Byrne and Dick Giordano

Part of Byrne's six-issue miniseries re-telling Superman's "official," post-Crisis origin story (which would stand for about a generation, gradually being chipped away at by future stories prior to later cosmic continuity realignments, like Infinite Crisis/52, Final Crisis and so on), this was the story of the first meeting between Superman and Batman.

They don't hit it off, and thus while they briefly fight and ally themselves against the villain of the issue, it's not exactly a Marve-style team-up. They part ways with a grudging respect for one another, Batman reflecting that maybe "in a different reality" they could have been friends, they would anything but for years of DC stories, only really starting to be friends again in the second half of the 1990s or so.

Their physical conflict is quite short, and they don't even come to blows. Batman has devised a clever, Machiavellian and--ultimately, courageous and heroic, if maybe a bit insanely so--way to keep Superman from laying hands on him. As a "battle," it's more a battle of wits, but it's a really solid one, showing how Batman's brains (and craziness) can overcome Superman's brawn (and nobility).

The bulk of the issue is devoted to their teaming up to take on then new villain Magpie. Re-read in 2015, the panel where the pair reflect on Magpie's future--either she'll stay in jail or Arkham for years, or be back on the streets immediately by hiring a great lawyer. Turns out, she did stay locked up and off the streets for years. I don't recall seeing her ever turn up between this issue and Batman Eternal, so her incarceration and mental health treatment seemed to work much better than that of your average criminally insane Gotham killer. (She looks very '80s in this issue, by the way; I think the folks who made Beware The Batman did a pretty fantastic job of reinventing her as a credible villain, a Catwoman-like femme fatale-esque character for Batman and making her look cool. That show's really not bat at least, the first half, which I've seen, wasn't. Still haven't finished it yet.)

Given that this follows the 2003 story from "Hush," it should here become apparent that the stories are not organized chronologically, either in order of their publication, or the order in which they "happened" in-continuity (And, as you'll see, there are at least three different continuities in here: post-Crisis, New 52 and the Dark Knight Returns-iverse).

This should be available in the 2013 Man of Steel Vol. 1.

Winner: Tie

Justice League #2 (2011)
By Geoff Johns, Jim Lee and Scott Williams

While Batman and Superman do fight in this issue, I suppose it's well worth noting that most of their fight takes place off-panel (it opens with Superman noting all the stuff that Superman has thrown at him to no effect, and that his belt is now empty). Additionally, it's not really a Superman vs. Batman fight; it's Superman Vs. Batman, Green Lantern and The Flash.

Chronicling the first meeting of Superman and Batman in The New 52 continuity (at least, the first that they can remember; they met once before this, according to the first arc in Batman/Superman, but their memories of that meeting were lost), this is part of Johns and Lee's not-very-good opening arc of The New 52 Justice League title, set during the first year of the current continuity's five-to-six-year timeline.

Superman sees Batman carrying a Mother Box, the same device he'd seen on a Parademon previously, so he assumes he's with the bad guys. Batman tries to talk him out of fighting, while Green Lantern Hal Jordan throws various constructs and Superman, and then calls in The Flash. Eventually, they all cool down and stop fighting.

This issue is, of course, available in Justice League Vol. 1: Origin.

Winner: Tie...? I guess...?

Superman/Batman #78 (2011)
Joe Kelly, Jack Kelly and Ed Benes

Ironically, this may be the best-written story in the collection...and the least well-known. It's also the very sort of done-in-one story that more typically fills collections like this.

The premise is pretty simple: Two boys, one a Superman fan and one a Batman fan, have the eternal debate of who would win in a fight, Superman or Batman. After struggling with the same things any writer would have to struggle with, like what would make the two fight, they then have to struggle with various rules: No killing, no Kryptonite, not Mxyzptlk or Bat-Mite, etc.

Once all that's established, they talk their way through how the fight would go, which amounts to a series of Batman launching a surprise attack that he had obviously been planning for a while, and Superman tearing through it. It's fun both in the way that Kelly and Kelly deconstruct the writing of such a story, as well in the weird juxtaposition of the kids' dialogue coming out of the mouths of the Benes-drawn superheroes (Wonder Woman, Robin Tim Drake and a few Leaguers also appear).

Unfortunately, Benes isn't really all that great a storyteller (as you may have noticed if you've read, let's see, anything he's ever drawn), and so the climax of the fight doesn't really make sense. I think Batman uses trained bats to eclipse the sun and rob Superman of his powers somehow, which doesn't really make sense, but definitely doesn't as drawn; the dialogue just says that when Batman attacks Superman with a giant robot that Superman easily smashes open, that there was something inside it that can remove the sun from the equation, and we just see some vague drawings of bat shapes here and there.

Ultimately it's a tie, of course, with Superman and Batman dying at the end...and then there's a neat little twist, revealing the real Superman and Batman eavesdropping on the conversation and discussing it one another and they leave the scene.

It has previously been collected in Superman/Batman Vol. 12: Sorcerer Kings.

Winner: Tie

Batman #35-36 (2014)
Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and Danny Miki

Another surprise entry, these are the first two chapters of "Endgame," the "ultimate" confrontation between The Joker and The Batman that seemingly results in the two old foes killing one another. But it's another Batman vs. Superman battle which isn't quite that. Instead, it's more of a Batman vs. The Justice League story, with Batman taking on and down Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman before ultimately facing Superman, who takes an awful lot more fighting to take down than their peers.

As to the why of this fight, Batman's Justice League colleagues have all been Joker-ized by a new version of Joker venom. Batman, naturally, has contingency plans for taking on all of his teammates should they ever go rogue, and he uses them here. Interestingly, these are different contingencies than those hinted at and used during the Johns-written Forever Evil.

These comics are collected in the only rather recently released Batman Vol. 7: Endgame, although the first chapter was also just published in the free giveaway DC produced for Batman Day, Batman Day #1.

Winner: Batman

Batman: The Dark Knight #4 (1986)
By Frank Miller and Kalus Janson

You're probably familiar with this one, right?

It looks extremely different from everything else in the book, not only in the design and rendering, but also in the coloring (by Lynn Varley). Not only does it seem to be of a different era as all of these (although it saw publication the same year as the Man of Steel story by Byrne), it looks like i's from a different world entirely.

Probably the best-known and most influential Batman vs. Superman fight of them all, it features the World's Finest seemingly going at it like cats bats and dogs, both out for blood. Batman fighting Superman later became a staple of Elseworlds and various out-of-continuity stories, of the sort "The Dark Knight Returns" helped popularize, with Superman almost always the bad guy.

It's another "draw," one which shows that even the best-prepared Batman can't really expect to KO Superman, but still thinks far enough ahead that he can trick his way out of having to do so.

This story has been collected about as much as anything DC's ever published, including in the many and various editions of The Dark Knight Returns and, of course, the recently published Batman: The Dark Knight saga (which is missing both Spawn/Batman and All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, both of which are explicitly set in the same "universe" as DKR!).

Winner: Tie

So, if you're tallying it all up, of the six stories/battles, Batman wins twice, and ties Superman four times. Not a great showing from The Man of Steel, really. Also of possible interest? Three of the stories are set in pot-Crisis DCU continuity, two are set in The New 52 and one is set in a non-canonical, story-specific world.

One can always quibble with content in such collections, but the thing that I would have most preferred to see included here over any particular comic book story is a long, thorough foreword or essay of some kind, supplying context not only to the specific stories, but to the history of Batman and Superman battles and conflicts, and their evolving relationship in general. One of them (usually Batman) beating the other (usually Superman) comes up all the time, and often it's just an aside in a bigger story, like in a Justice League story, or an element in non-canon stories, like Kingdom Come (where their conflict is ideological rather than a physical blow-out, as Superman fights Captain Marvel and Batman fights Wonder Woman in the climactic battle) or the Injustice: Gods Among Us and so on.

The pair went from besties to colleagues to frenemies and rivals to achieving a gradual, grudging acceptance of another, to the point where they are now pretty much best of friends again. The many different ways Batman might have devised to take out or take down Superman (several of which are in here) are often quite interesting (like the synthetic red Kryptonite he was developing, that Ra's al Ghul used against Superman in "Tower of Babel" during Mark Waid's JLA run), as are the reasons they might come into conflict with one another (like Superman trying to stop Batman from killing The Joker at the climax of "A Death in the Family"), but more so to mention in passing, than to include, like, a whole chunk of that story arc in a book like this.

Also, the idea of DC's two biggest superheroes coming into conflict is one with a history well worth exploring, especially since it's the basis for that movie coming up. That movie seems to be the main reason DC published this collection now, so I suppose we should be relieved they went with the title they did, rather than Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Them Fighting or something...


Anthony Strand said...

I'm surprised this doesn't have the New Frontier Special #1 from 2008. The story was a pretty typical BvS fight, but it was some of Darwyn Cooke's best art.

doron said...

Batman and Superman fight Magpie in Man of Steel not Mockingbird.

d said...

So basically another excuse for Lee & Johns to get themselves some of that sweet, sweet reprint money.

Steve said...

I feel mildly embarrassed that this is my first comment on your excellent blog, but Magpie put in a few more appearances post-Man of Steel, including Batman #401, where she got the cover: