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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Batman Eternal, Vol. 1: In with the Old, Out with the New

In the comics business, at the big two anyway, there are several types of event comics. You've got the crisis crossover, in which the whole shared universe is involved, one way or another, in some cosmic battle for the fate of reality as we know it (see Crisis on Infinite Earths, Civil War, and Forever Evil); the Bat-family crossover, in which all of the books set around a specific location or set of characters participate in a single series of events (see Knightfall, The Death of Superman and Trinity War; Marvel isn't really into this sort of crossover as most of their heroes are centered around the same location anyway, making any mass event crossovers essentially crisis crossovers). And then you've got the maxi-series.

A maxi-series, quite plainly, is the larger cousin of the mini-series, that is, a limited series which goes on for a bit longer than your typical 4 to 8 issue mini-series. In truth, the only maxi-series I've read are Brightest Day, Justice League: Generation Lost, and Batman Eternal, all of which were at DC Comics and the last of which we will be reviewing today. I want to read 52, which I have heard good things about, but I'm not too interested in looking into Marvel's Secret Wars.

Batman Eternal is a weekly series, the first I'm aware that DC has done since 52 back in 2006. Taking place in the aftermath of Forever Evil, which saw the "death" of Nightwing, Eternal's basic premise is that Commissioner Gordon accidentally kills a train full of people (or did he?) and goes to jail, Carmine "the Roman" Falcone shows up to wreak serious havoc, and Batman has to control a violent gang war while investigating who was really responsible for the train accident that Gordon allegedly caused. Batman's gonna need every ally he has for this one...

If all of that sounds a bit confusing, rest assured, I am telling it like it is. Batman Eternal has a bloated cast, an entangled spiderweb of subplots, and a story-line which has pacing issues that you wouldn't believe. Believe me, I wanted to like Eternal, but as with so many other stories I've read, you kind of have to see it to get the full gist of it.

If you're reading this article and thinking that Batman Eternal is a awful series, I'll be the first to say that it's not that bad... in some respects. I mean, the core idea of the book, that is, stories about the various Bat-family members working together to save the day, is an awesome idea that I wish we'd see more often. Unfortunately, Eternal's biggest problem, aside from the fundamental weaknesses which I described earlier, is that, if anything, it's just too ambitious for its own good. The book itself reads like Batman: War Games, which is not a good thing, but is nonetheless pretty surprising. I mentioned in my review of that ill-fated Bat-family crossover that the thing was basically a huge mess, mainly because it lacked the solid plotting and a centralized storyline that made previous 90's-2000's era Bat-family crossovers work. The thing about Eternal, however, is that is does the exact same thing, for almost the exact same reasons, but is distilled and condensed into a maxiseries which normally wouldn't have this problem.

Why do I say, "normally?" I say "normally" because, normally, there's only one, maybe two, writers working on a single book. Even the great mega-series Knightfall had Chuck Dixon and Denny O'Neil working to keep the story solid and on course, and it worked out pretty well. In this case, we have around half-a-dozen writers working on this thing at once. Now, I'm no expert in the dynamics of comic book creative teams, but I'd be willing to wager that what we have here is a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. And it really is a shame, because most of these guys, to my knowledge, are top-notch Bat-scribes who could give us some great stuff. We've got names like Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and John Layman all working on this thing, and any one or even any two of them could probably have made a darn good maxi-series.

Unfortunately, with all of these writers, the end result is that we've got Batwing (Luke Fox) and Jim Corrigan mucking about in the basement of Arkham Asylum, Batman running hog-wild every which way, Batgirl and Red Hood fighting various bad guys in Brazil, and Red Robin and Harper Row trying to track down the source of a nanovirus (don't ask) in Tokyo, and that's without mentioning the Stephanie Brown plot, the Julia Pennyworth plot, the Falcone-Penguin gang war plot, the Jim Gordon in jail plot, the Jason Bard being a super-awesome cop plot, and the whatever the flipping else I forgot to mention plot! (GCPD, Mayor Hady, Deacon Blackfire, Vicki Vale, etc.)

I also take issue with the books seesawing depiction of certain characters, such as Jason Bard and Vicki Vale. For most of the story, Bard is depicted as a competent, smart, and good cop. Then at the end, this portrayal gets flipped on its head with almost no foreshadowing, other than Batman saying, "I don't trust you." That kind of threw me for a loop. Contrary to popular belief, just because Batman says something doesn't make it true. And if it is true, it does not count as foreshadowing, because Bard didn't actually do anything until the very end to make you go, "Whoa... that totally just happened." It's more like, "Huh? What the... that makes no sense!" Vicki Vale is a different case, mainly because she's acting like a smart, super-awesome reporter gal one moment, and an airhead with no sense the next.

This series also engages a lot in what my colleague Rob Siebert over at Primary Ignition calls "needless naming." This phenomenon occurs when characters go out of their way to say each other's names out loud so that the audience knows who they are. Problem is, when you do it more than once, it gets really annoying really fast. Seriously, it happens once an issue, and you'd think that the writers would realize that people who are following a weekly series wouldn't need to be reminded of the identities of the cast every issue. Honestly people, believe in the intelligence of your audience!

What does Batman Eternal get right, you ask? Like I said, I genuinely love the main idea of this book: the Bat-family working together, kicking butt and taking names. The interactions and character dynamics between them are pretty good (for a New 52 production), if not always outstanding. I like how they brought back Carmine Falcone, who was a pretty good villain back during Batman: The Long Halloween. In fact, all of the older, classic, characters get a really good deal in this trade. Tim Drake/Red Robin gets some spotlight in a genuine Bat-book for once; Stephanie Brown is finally reintroduced into the New 52; ditto for Bard, Cluemaster, and the surprise villain near the end of the book. This book is all about brushing up on older Bat-comics history, and I love it. Even the newer characters like Harper, Julia, and Leo (Gordon's cell mate) don't exactly get the short end of the stick. They all get a chance to shine, and I know that they'll all have bigger roles in Vol. 2.

If anyone gets a raw deal in this collection, it's Catwoman. She shows up early to chat with Batman, and gives us a nice reaction shot when she hears that Falcone is back in town, but the next time we see here, she gets captured by Falcone and gets saved by the timely intervention of... Professor Pyg? Oh, yeah, and Batman helped. (Speaking of Professor Pyg, we never really see what happened to that guy after he was sent to Arkham and he let out a big "No!" Also, we never see the fate of Corrigan and Batwing, who go down fighting zombies in the basement of Arkham Asylum.)

The final notable element of this book was the art. It's rare that we get to see such an ambitious Bat-family story with so many characters brought to life by more-or-less the same artist. Having the same artist throughout the series (with occasional substitutes, such as by Dustin Nguyen) brings a unity of function and form to the series that is lacking in most Bat-family crossovers. Indeed, in most Bat-family crossovers, the art and writing styles are so eclectic that you'd think that Jean-Paul Valley wrote the book if you didn't know better.

Unfortunately, despite these fleeting strengths, Batman Eternal, Vol. 1 largely falls flat due to an assortment of fundamental flaws which form the foundation of sand upon which this series is built. I sincerely wanted to like Eternal, and I followed its progress quite closely on the internet prior to the release of this volume. It's reintroduction of Stephanie Brown to the New 52 is laudable, and I salute Snyder and his cohorts for their use of this fan-pleasing strategy. It was nice to see the Bat-family together on the comics page in capable hands, but I know that with a different combination of writers (or just one), it could have been done even better. And if I'm right that the writers' idea is to make this story into a recreation of Batman: War Games, I can only ask one, single, overriding question: "Could you have honestly picked a worse Batman story to try to emulate?"

RATING: 6.5/10

Fun fact: In the graphic novel, Carmine Falcone is running a criminal empire of some kind in Hong Kong prior to returning to Gotham City. As something of a crime buff, I have to wonder, why would a former Italian Mafioso be running a criminal empire in Hong Kong? I mean, I'm sure its possible, but likely? Nah.

Image courtesy of dc.wikia.com