In June 2016, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu and entertainment editor Kyle Pinion are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Mitch Gerads
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
I’m always hesitant to write about Batman comics, for a number of reasons. Namely, Batman sucks up a lot of air in the DC Universe. Take a look at the lineup of titles within Rebirth: while it’s less than it once was, there’s a still huge chunk of retailer space that the Bat-titles inhabit. He’s the most popular character in the entire slate, so there’s a good deal of narrative emphasis on Bruce Wayne and the extended members of this family. I also have trouble talking about it, because my interest in Batman has really waned over the years. My Bat-fanaticism was at its peak during the Knightfall years, and had a nice resurgence during the Morrison era. Since then, perhaps its due to age, or some other factor, I’ve become more of a Superman guy. I think when you’re a teenager and in your twenties, that grim dark avenger is the perfect sort of outlet for whatever angst you have, but once you hit those middle 30’s and beyond, you just sort of want to be happy and content. The current Superman books, especially the eponymous Superman and Super Sons, really dig deep into that personal vein for me.
But there were a couple of reasons I wanted to ponder this particular book this week: the Tom King run on Batman has been an interesting beast, one that I think has disappointed some fans who were expecting the strict formalism and blow you away almost every month nature of titles like The Vision and Omega Men. But in all honestly, regardless of its slight visual merry-go-round, with arcs being handed off between David Finch and Mikel Janin, with another artist dropping in for breathers between “acts” of the “I Am…” trilogy, I remain pretty enthralled by it all. Not necessarily because I think the arcs are holding together in a specific way that are redefining how I feel about the character or Gotham itself, but because I think the individual chapters themselves are really exciting to behold. I know I’ve said this before, and I’m sorry to be a broken record, but I think there’s something to be said for a Batman run that is so unpredictable in how its story will be told that it quickly becomes the first thing you read in your stack every other week. I’m here less because of any real need to read “the ongoing adventures of Batman” so much as “how will King and company take me by surprise next?” It doesn’t always do the trick, but it’s hard not to admire the exercise in craft, particularly for a run that has staked its claim more within the psychological confines of the character more than anything else.
The other big draw this week? Mitch Gerads. I’ve long been a fan, even when I wasn’t crazy about the scripts he was tasked with, but his recent pairings with King have established something of a creative partnership, the sort of thing that both have needed in the recent years leading up to The Sheriff of Babylon, but had lacked before then. When we think of Ed Brubaker, it’s generally agreed that his best work has been done with Sean Phillips, the same can be said of Grant Morrison and surely Frank Quitely, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, it goes on and on. Prior to this, King had some nice artistic collaborators like Gabriel Walta and the aforementioned Janin, but nothing that ever felt that definitive. But between The Sheriff of Babylon, “Rooftops” the Catwoman two-parter (that until today was probably my favorite story of this volume so far), and the very promising Mister Miracle 12 issue mini that starts in August, it looks as though King has found the best possible collaborator that can imbue his tragic visions and clockwork storybeats with a grounded and lifelike approach, that feels both like the best possible version of these tales while also seeming completely out of step with the general output of mainstream superhero comics. These two together really start to border on that same sort of alchemy that got me really excited about Fraction/Aja Hawkeye, and for me, that’s a really lofty perch.
Three paragraphs in and I haven’t even discussed the issue itself, which turns on the pairing of Batman and Swamp Thing with the cleverly titled “The Brave and the Mold”. It opens with an impressively cinematic prelude on an elderly fellow singing a gloomy tune surrounded in black and white tones just before he takes two to the head from an unseen attacker. This opening set of panels is a nice reminder of the unique strengths that Gerads brings to the medium. Rather than focus on the impending menace of the attacker or utilize a perspective that might give the game away too soon, Gerads does a zoom in within three panels and spends his energy on the relative stillness inherent in the scene. He did this a lot with Sheriff as well, where characters moved and interacted like actual human beings might, and instead of having BIG dramatic reactions between panels within a conversation, each instance only contained the subtlest of differences, sometimes none at all. That’s an admirable skill, a kind of patience that a lot of artists in this action-heavy genre tends to eschew. But wow, does it knock my socks off every time I see it from him, even in short bursts like this.
Launching off of that, comes the Batman-Gordon investigation, and another wonderfully parsed out sequence, this time over the course of nine-panels and the emergence of Swamp Thing in the midst of their discussion about life and death. Watching that hand emerge out of the victim’s desk and the rock that was acting as a paper weight is pretty thrilling, especially when Gordon is caught by surprise by Alec’s out of nowhere emergence. We learn the victim was Alec Holland’s biological father and this prompts a fascinating discussion between Bruce and Alec regarding the nature of life, which marks a stark contrast between the emotionally driven Bruce and the zen-like Alec – who is drawn to this case for a reason that he can’t quite piece together.
Each segment of the book is divided by chapters that are presented almost like silent movie intertitles, even down to film grain on each instance. We get some really humorous back and forths between our two stars, including Swamp Thing wondering why Batman needs a car anyway. This kind of a levity, along with the appearance of Tom King’s favorite D-list Batman villain Kite Man, is a nice touch given the dour note that the entire affair ends on.
That’s not a criticism, by the way. As a matter of fact, the conclusion is unrelenting, particularly in how the reader is forced to endure Swamp Thing’s full-fledged wrath and the unexpected emotional outburst that follows, which in-turn reframes the entire conversation that Bruce and Alec have over tea into one that plays right into the ongoing themes of Bruce’s own ongoing emotional reconciliation. Just when he thought perhaps there was a different perspective he could hang onto, that in turn evaporates, much like Alec does when finally confronted with his own still somewhat existent human nature.
This is a great comic book, the best issue of King’s run, and the best Bat-comic I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time.
Teen Titans #8
Story: Priest, Benjamin Percy, and Dan Abnett
Script: Benjamin Percy
Breakdowns: Phil Hester
Pencils: Khoi Pham
Inks: Wade Von Grawbadger
Colorist: Jim Charalampidis
Letterer: Corey Breen
For my second, shorter review this week, I wanted to drop in on the current “Lazarus Contract” crossover that’s taken over Titans, Teen Titans, and Deathstroke; three books, that up to this point, I’ve enjoyed to varying extents. The Eisner-nominated Deathstroke led by (Christopher) Priest is the cream of that crop, producing a well percolated familial drama, that while providing some sympathy for its respective devil in Slade Wilson, it never looks past his monstrous acts nor glorifies them. The Ben Percy-written Teen Titans is another one of the Rebirth highlights, that while maybe not reaching the dead-serious, ambitious nature of Deathstroke, is a great deal of fun and the perfect remedy for what had been ailing the franchise since Geoff Johns left the title. Titans is a little more hit and miss, though much of that impression is formed from how its overlong opening arc drug down the title.
All three books, at the very worst, range from okay to exceptional. So, of course, here comes the ever dreaded crossover between them, and frankly, it’s kind of stopped the momentum of its books a little cold. There’s a strain of cleverness here in that all three writers have aimed to take the dual Wally West plot thread and tie that in, in a bit of a strained manner, to Slade’s ongoing guilt related to the death of his first son Grant. And I think perhaps that’s where my problems with this crossover begin. The Slade we’ve seen in Priest’s title doesn’t really feel like the same guy who would concoct this fairly convoluted plan to go back in time and save his son. If perhaps we hadn’t been treated to months and months of issues of this multi-faceted take on the villain, then perhaps I’d be a little more forgiving of “Deathstroke the more generic bad guy”, but now it just feels like a big step back. I’m also struggling a bit with the continuity issues that have presented themselves in this crossover, and maybe I’ve just been inundated with this stuff and have forgotten some key moments, but how does Wally not remember his other relative named Wally as established in the Rebirth 80 pager? Or even if we allow the fact they’ve never met, couldn’t older Wally just said, “oh sorry, I’m your cousin, we just have the same name – sorry I didn’t say that before!”? But, really this just highlights what an awkward situation this two Wallys thing is. Both characters are great in isolation, but the way their connection has been handled has been rather messy from the start.
The issue itself is an improvement on the generally lackluster first chapter, Percy’s great handling on the Teen Titans team itself continues to shine, especially where Robin and Beast Boy are concerned. But the pacing of the story itself is a bit odd. It opens with a flashback to how the younger Wally was captured by Deathstroke, and then our attention is zipped over to the Teen Titans wondering where he is, and then we finally resume where Part 1 left off, and then we have to catch back up to the Titans, and all of this happens before we even hit the title page – which pops up halfway through the book. It’s just a case of having to do way too much heavy lifting to balance the casts of all three titles.
Things get moving after that point, though the interactions between the Teen Titans and their older colleagues comes across a bit lifeless and forced, such as the quick back and forth between Tempest and the not-yet-officially-named Aqualad, or Donna Troy and Starfire’s off-handed warrior talk. But Percy’s writing continues to work like gangbusters anytime he’s handling Damian, who thankfully takes center-stage in most of the bigger moments. But it’s hard to shake the revelation regarding Nightwing’s dealings with Deathstroke as a can that’s being kicked down the road. There are multiple heroes present and not one of them stopped to ask Dick for details right then and there?
“The Lazarus Contract” has bits and pieces that work, but I get the feeling the stand-out chapter will be its conclusion, as I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had some significant interest in a Priest-written super-speed enhanced Slade Wilson (and what sort of internalized journey he’ll go through). But the getting there has felt like more work than needed, especially in how it has careened the thrust of its respective series.
Verdict: Skip It
- Aquaman #23 kicks off the “Crown of Atlantis” arc, not to be confused with “Throne of Atlantis” storyline from back in the day, though the base subject matter is a little similar. While I’ve been a little lukewarm on Abnett’s Titans, I have a really soft spot in my heart for his efforts on Aquaman, where he’s done a nice job building up the supporting cast and political intrigue of the title. Sometimes the rotating artist situation works against him, but I think this is a remarkably solid little take on Arthur, Mera and the ongoing struggle for Atlantis to find its foothold in the geopolitical sphere. This new arc finds Arthur on the outs with the bureaucrats that find his approach too forgiving of the land-dwellers, and even apologetic. Instead they’ve turned to the strong-arming Corum Rath of The Deluge, who was set free by the Royal Council who feel his leadership may provide the peace and security the citizens of Atlantis desire. There’s a bit of a “Nationalist vs. Globalist” take here that may bristle some readers, but I found it pretty timely. It’s a good title that I think a lot of people are missing the boat on, and it just continues to chug along.
- Other books that I think are worth a look this week include: Cave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye #8, which continues its exquisite B-movie weirdness and looks pretty fabulous with Michael Avon Oeming hitting his mark every single month without one fill-in or any significant delays. No other Young Animal title can say the same at this point, even Shade the Changing Girl, whose fill-in I adored. Superman #23 is also a blast, providing some VERY unexpected answers for some of the odd occurrences that have surrounded the Kent family in their current dwellings of Hamilton. On the less exciting side of things, Batwoman #3 still hasn’t done a lot to really win me over beyond the always welcome art of Steve Epting, this ongoing island plotline just hasn’t clicked into place. And I’m sad to say that for Nightwing #21, as excited as I was to read that fill-in, Michael McMillian’s scripting fails him a bit here and falls away a bit from the enjoyable short he produced in DC’s New Talent Showcase. Love ya on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend though Michael! I’m rooting for you!
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Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. Also, your go-to Grant Morrison/Love & Rockets/Hellboy/Legion of Super-Heroes expert.