Much of the book consists of done-in-ones and shorter stories, as Grant would so often craft 22-page scripts around a particular subject—cats, garbage, symbolism—and riff on it with various bits of trivia and available Batman connections.
And so the volume opens with a perfectly satisfying, somewhat complex story involving Catwoman, Catman and one of Catman's escaped tigers (this is the story in which Catman debuts a new, Breyfogle-designed costume, which I think is my favorite Catman costume. He would get a new one in Villians United). There are also stories in which an eighth-grader doing an ecology project on garbage does a ride-along with his garbage truck driver father and gets mixed up with the mob; there's a Batman and Bruce Wayne team-up to save some kids from a life of crime offered by motorcycle gang The Street Demonz (ending with an unusual-looking splash page upon which Batman smiles broadly); there's Batman taking on a prehistoric horror that awoke from a mysterious ancient mound; and Batman reluctantly taking up a fortune teller's offer for help in tracking The Joker with a tarot deck (while flashing back to an earlier encounter between the two, in which Batman thwarts a museum heist).
These are all well-crafted superhero comics, and filled with dynamic art by Breyfogle and Mitchell, art which still counts among the best Batman art ever produced on a regular basis. But the story in this volume that would ultimately prove most important is the four-part "Rite of Passage," as it was a pretty key chapter in Tim Drake's development into the third Robin.
Tim had been staying with Batman and Alfred while his important business-people parents were flying around the world doing business stuff, and, in this story, their plane goes down in the Caribbean, where they are taken hostage by voodoo-powered villain The Obeah Man. Batman leaves Tim behind to try to rescue them, but it goes badly, with Tim's mother dying and his father left in a coma after the pair drink poisoned water (Tim, meanwhile, keeps himself busy crimefighting online, as he butts heads with Lonnie "Anarky" Manchin for the first time, the teenage villain using the alias "Moneyspider" to rob from the rich and give to the poor).
Rounding out the collection is 1990's Detective Comics Annual #3, by writer Archie Goodwin and the art team of Dan Jurgens and Dick Giordano. The only story in the collection not by the Grant/Breyfogle team, this over-sized story is something of a plot-heavy action movie of a comic book, involving Batman traveling to Japan, where after much intrigue he finds himself battling one of the men who trained a young Bruce Wayne.
"Rite of Passage" was actually the conclusion of the Grant/Breyfogle team's run on Detective Comics—they would move on to a short stint of another dozen and change issues on Batman from there— but I'm hopeful the Dark Knight Detective series continues for at least another volume, as some truly weird comics follow. There's a three-part John Ostrander/Flint Henry collaboration with crazy-looking covers by the Dick Sprang, some Marv Wolfman/Jim Aparo issues and then some Peter Milligan-scripted issues. The next volume would also presumably include Detective Comics #627, which reprints the very first Batman story, "The Case of The Criminal Syndicate," and then offers various teams doing their own "cover" versions of that story.
All in all, Detective Comics gets pretty chaotic following Grant and Breyfogle's run, but it also gets very interesting, and I haven't read (and read and re-read and re-read) a lot of those stories, so I'm not as familiar with them as I am with what's filled the last few volumes of the series. I am therefore extremely interested in them.
The similarities to Festival of Heroes don't stop there, of course. This is also $9.99, 80-page anthology featuring a particular sub-set of DC superhero characters—here, obviously, LGBTQIA+ characters—by creators who represent the same groups as the characters.
The book includes nine short stories, plus seven pin-ups, a prose introduction by Marc Andreyko and six pages of "DCTV DC Pride Profiles", featuring interviews with the actors who play various LGBTQ characters on the various DC TV shows.
Of the comics stories, I think the most interesting one was probably writer Sam Johns and artist Klaus Janson's "He's The Light of My Life" story featuring Alan Scott and his son Obsidian Todd Rice (who I would argue is probably the DC Universe's most prominent gay character, although I don't think I could convince many people of that, since he doesn't have a bat on his chest nor has he been in any movies). Alan, who just recently came out (and was thus was more-or-less retconned into being gay after about 80 years of being portrayed as straight), is meeting his son Todd's boyfriend at brunch for the very first time. They meet at a gay-owned restaurant that used to be a secret gay bar, back in Alan's day.
At one point the pair, who have had a particularly troubled relationship over the years, go to a back room and don their costumes, where Alan tries to explain what his decades of life in the closet were like, and how Todd being out gave him courage to eventually come out himself.
I think at this point, Alan Scott may be the single most interesting character in the DC Universe, as the revelation of his sexuality means he has been in the closet since at least 1940, during which time he was married, fathered two children and, of course, was one of the world's premiere superheroes. He's lived most of the twentieth century of American history, and part of the 21st, as a closeted gay man, from the dawn of superheroes (in the real world as well as within the DCU) to now; the man has therefore seen some stuff, and could prove a fascinating prism through which to explore gay history, and pop culture's shifting attitudes about homosexuality. And I don't know, I think there's something interesting about someone as brave as Alan Scott—you know, an honest-to-God superhero, one of the heroes who was around early enough to provide a mold for most other superheroes—having the courage to fight wars and crime for decades, but still being reluctant to come out until 2021.
Beyond all of that, though, there's obviously a great deal of dramatic potential in his personal life, as one obviously wonders which if any of his old JSA peers knew about it and how they felt about it (they're all close to being a hundred years old at this point, I have to assume at least some of them were assholes about it at some point, right? ), whether his wife Molly knew about it and, if he did, when she found out and why she stayed married to him so long and, of course, what it was like when his son came out to him and he didn't respond by coming out to him for so many more years (and did Todd know? It seems like Todd suspected at some point before Alan made it official, according to the short story in Infinite Horizon).
Johns and Janson's tale doesn't really get too deep into all of that—it's only a couple of pages long, of course—but it does touch on what it was like for Alan to be gay back in the mid-twentieth century versus today, and the story is well done enough that I would love to see this creative team tackle the character at greater length, and perhaps begin to address and answer some of the questions raised by Alan's coming out.
Somewhat remarkably, this is perhaps the only story that wrestles with one might call "gay issues." Sure, there are a couple of stories in which characters go on dates (John Constantine tries to pick up Extrano in a bar in Steve Orlando and Stephen Byrne's "By The Victors," Future State Flash goes out with Future State Aquawoman in Danny Lore and Lisa Sterle's "Clothes Makeup Gift", the Supergirl TV show's Dreamer goes to the movies with Brainiac in Nicole Maines and Rachel Stott's "Date Night"), Mariko Tamaki and Amy Reeder have Poison Ivy all but force Harley Quinn into having a serious discussion about the state of their relationship in "Another Word For a Truck to Move Your Furniture"**, and Andrew Wheeler and Luciano Vecchio do a story set at a Pride parade, but all of these stories also involve typical superhero stuff, too.
So, for example, the Future State Flash and Dreamer don't angst about being trans; they fight Mirror Master and super-terrorists while trying not to keep their dates waiting. Aqualad goes to Pride with a young magician Raven introduced him to and the "JLQ" of all the gay character Vecchio can draw in a couple of panels show up, but that's to fight Eclipso. For the most part, these are stories about gay characters beings superheroes, not superheroes being gay, and I think that distinction is important, and, while I'm not the best-suited person to address the success or failures of such an endeavor in terms of representation, I think the book succeeds pretty wildly in this.
Sina Grace writes a story featuring The Pied Piper entitled "Be Gay, Do Crime," repurposing an Internet phrase. "Be Gay, Fight Crime" could just as easily have been the title of this anthology, given the subject matter.(And even the villains who appear, like Piper, Harley and Ivy, act as heroes in their stories, rather than as villains).
I'd be remiss not to mention James Tynion IV and Trung Le Nguyen's Batwoman story, "The Wrong Side of The Looking Glass." Not only is it one of the stronger examples of a story in which the hero just happens to be gay, it's perhaps the most interesting looking story in the collection, thangs to Le Nguyen's strong style, so far removed from what one typically thinks of as superhero style, and the way in which he draws Kate's hair and costume. It's one of the most distinct-looking Batwoman comics I've read, and that's a character whose relatively short history has been blessed with some incredible stylists portraying her adventures (Le Nguyen also contributed a short story to Festival of Heroes; I hope you've all read his The Magic Fish by now. I've certainly recommended it enough).
As with Festival, though, the real challenge isn't just to be able to let queer creators do stories with queer characters for a special, once-a-year issue, but to keep such talented creators working behind the scenes, and to keep queer characters like Extrano, Aqualad, Alan Scott and Obsidian front and center in the comics throughout the year. (I live-tweeted my reading of the book here, if you my most immediate thoughts, plus some scans of some of the great art in there).
A day after first reading it, the stories that stay with me the most are the Titania one and the Prodigy one, and I feel somewhat conflicted by Anthony Oliverira and Javier Garron's Iceman story, which is at once heart-breaking in its depiction of the double-closeted gay mutant Bobby Drake and somewhat stupid in Magneto dropping his attack missiles, with which he was apparently ready to murder Bobby with, in order to comfort him. Conflicted, but it's still on my mind.
I'm a little tired of it, aren't you?The same old story.Like it's the only one you know.
The speaker? The Black Mercy flower, created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1985 in the seminal "For The Man Who Has Everything" story in Superman Annual #11. By my count, writer Jeff Loveness is recycling Moore's plot device for the eighth time, following Geoff Johns (2006's Green Lantern #7), Gail Simone (2006's All-New Atom #20), Peter Tomasi (2008's Green Lantern Corps #23-#26), Jeff Lemire (2011's Superboy #7), Bryan Q. Miller (2011's Batgirl #23), Cullen Bunn (2015's Sinestro #9) and Phillip Kennedy Johnson (2018's Aquaman Annual #1).***
So speaking of the same old story...
Loveness' two-parter has the Justice League line-up pictured on Nick Derington's cover—as with the previous Justice League collection Vengeances Is Thine, this one contains issues from the time-killing period after writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV's run on the title ended, but before the story was resolved in Dark Nights: Death Metal—on their way back to Earth after the adventure in space that accounts for the book's first story arc.
They mysteriously arrive at a spooky, haunted planet that turns out to be the home planet of the Black Mercy (although here presented somewhat differently than when Tomasi set a Green Lantern Corps story on the home planet of the Black Mercy in 2008). The Leaguers all rather quickly succumb, although the only one whose Mercy-induced fantasies we spend much time with are Batman's. Here the Mercy takes the form of his murdered mother, complete with a bloody eye from her fatal wounds, and it talks directly to Batman, without any sort of subterfuge regarding whether the visions being shown to him are really reality or not. Wonder Woman's lasso helps free her from the thrall of the Mercy, and she in turn frees the others.
The one thing that might have made this ninth cover version of an old Alan Moore story worthwhile would have been the art, but Robson Rocha and Daniel Henriques don't do anything particularly noteworthy on that front. It's mostly predictable DC house style art, which is a little too bad, as there are brief, one-panel allusions to various crisis stories (Final Crisis, Blackest Night, etc) and familiar alternate future stories (Kingdom Come, Batman Beyond, etc) that might have been fun to see a very distinctive art style applied to versions of.
The other story in the collection is much more original and complex—how could it not be?—but unfortunately it's not very good, either. The three-part "The Rule" by writer Simon Spurrier and artists Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan finds the five heroes answering a distress signal from children set adrift on a derelict spaceship from their home planet. On that home planet, a civil war has erupted, and the League arrives just in time to save the tyrannical ruler from execution, but, since she was the only thing keeping peace between the two factions on the planet, the Leaguers find themselves forced into having to govern the planet.
It's an extremely awkward and uncomfortable story, and barely a page went by without my having to stop and ask myself, "Wait, would the League really do this? Would Superman say that?" and so on. The problem, as became readily apparent, is that the League never gets involved with governing because writers never—or almost never—intentionally write them into the sorts of corners that Spurrier does here. He has quite intentionally come up with a very unlikely Justice League story, and then had the characters struggle through it.
In one regard, he should be applauded for a degree of bravery, and, I suppose, doing something so incredibly divorced from, like, everything one knows about the characters. It almost works as a sort of a comics-as-commentary-on-comics story, but well, divorcing the story from the context of the characters' history is asking a lot for issues #48-#50 of an ongoing title...featuring a team that has been around since 1960...and multiple characters that are over eight decades old, you know?
But, ultimately, there's a reason Justice League writers don't do stories about the Justice League intervening in wars and taking over planets to manage themselves as a council of emperors. They don't really work and, if there was a way to make such a story work, Spurrier didn't find it here (The presence of a Green Lantern alone makes the whole story seem implausible, as it reminds readers that the setting has a built-in peace-keeping infrastructure, one attended by thousands of officers with magic rings that know everything on their fingers; there's no reason for the League to keep getting caught off-guard as they are throughout this story arc).
Taking the two stories together, this is perhaps the single most skippable Justice League trade collection I've ever encountered...although I do like Deringston's renderings of the characters on some of the covers within, as generic as his covers might otherwise be (They very much look like stock ones, commissioned to feature the League without the artist really knowing what the League would be doing in the comics they would be placed atop). Luckily, this should be the last collection of post-Snyder run, pre-Death Metal fill-in issues; the next trade should collect a story arc's worth of tie-ins to Dark Nights: Death Metal, and then the one that follows that will be the first collection of Brian Michael Bendis' run on the title.
If you are among the audience for either of those books, are curious about reading more about them, or are just an obsessed Caleb completist who hates to miss me writing about anything on the Internet, I covered them both at somewhat greater length on my other blog here.
***Did I miss any comic book appearances of the Black Mercy? I know there was an episode of the Supergirl television show entitled "For The Girl Who Has Everything" which was a "For The Man Who Has Everything" homage/retread.