Chances are, being a well-adjusted individual, you don’t have the most fond memories, be they from high school or college, of the dreaded “group project.” Best case scenario: you got to “pick your group,” which ensured that everybody got along, at the expense of the project actually being worked on. Worse case scenario: your teacher took the moment to engage in twisted social experiments by ‘cuffing the brown-nosers with the nose-pickers, ensuring that not only did you have to do the “heavy lifting,” but associate with people you’d only end up empathizing with in a John Hughes world.
WORST case scenario: the “randomized” group assignments aforementioned, accompanied by “group evaluations.” Yes, I’m talking about those two words that ensured that you’d still be doing everything, all the while weighing giving superfluous members their “just desserts” against the fact that you might see/work/have class with them again. So you can understand my concerns when I heard that Batman Eternal would be a “group project,” of sorts. Also, thar’ be *SPOILERS* here, necessary to discussing the series’ structure, contents, and pacing.
For those unaware, Batman Eternal is a “weekly,” which means it’ll get dropped into your “pull” four times a month, instead of the usual one or (if you read certain Marvel titles) two a month. Of course, no singular writer/artist team could create that amount of content on a monthly basis (although, given Charles Soule’s workload as of late, he’d be the best contender for holding up the writing side of things). That’s where the team approach comes in.
Writing Batman Eternal is Scott Snyder (Batman, American Vampire), James Tynion IV (Talon), John Layman (Detective Comics, Chew), Tim Seeley (Revival, Grayson), and the “Destroyer of my pull,” Ray Fawkes (Constantine, Pandora). However, it bears noting that Layman announced his departure from the series in January (having penned several issues), and has been replaced by Kyle Higgins (Nightwing, C.O.W.L.) in his stead.
Now you may be asking: “Why is Nick covering two-months worth of this comic?” Admittedly, I had originally planned to pen a review after finishing the fourth issue, as the first month of Batman Eternal came to a close. But with 75% of the first batch possessing the same creative team, I worried that such a review would fail to be representative of this grand experiment, burying the rotational system in a disingenuous effort to start off with a strong showing. In some ways, duplicitous intent or not, I can’t fault them. After all, for all intents and purposes, Batman Eternal is firmly anchored into DC Comics’ 2014-2015 schedule.
With that in mind, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that series architects Snyder and Tynion were the ones to pen the first three issues, with Jason Fabok on pencils, fresh off his Detective Comics run with John Layman. Sure, Fabok doesn’t crack my “top five DC pencilers” list (he does make my “top ten” though), and I’ve heard people write him off as nothing more than a knock-off artist in the vein of Tony S. Daniel or David Finch. Yet I’d argue his level of detail doesn’t drop off in action sequences like Daniel’s sometimes does, and his ability to convey motion trumps Finch’s highly detailed, but somewhat static characters. Fabok’s a more than technically-proficient artist whose rendition of the Caped Crusader is crowd-pleasingly rife with shadows and muscles.
Let me be clear, this guy can draw; it’s just that his style isn’t as immediately identifiable as say, Allred or Capullo.
As for the plot of this opening arc, Snyder doesn’t hold any punches, opening this yearlong series with a bruised and beaten (and shirtless!) Bruce Wayne shackled to the front of a smoldering Batsignal, looking like a something out of 50 Shades of Gotham. Newsflash, Bruce: I don’t care how much money you’ve got, that thing’s been destroyed enough times to have put some sort of a dent in the finances of Wayne Enterprises. This is accompanied by a shadowy figure instructing Wayne to “watch as you lose everything.”
In lesser hands, I’d roll my eyes at this cheese-laden line, and await a whimpering payoff, but with Scott Snyder proving time and time again that he’s DC’s (probably only) “man with a plan,” I’ll reserve my judgment for now. That, and having spent over a year firmly in the past with “Zero Year,” one has to imagine Snyder’s had some time to mull over Batman’s future. And if you want proof that “Babyface” Snyder has been busting out the interconnecting yarn lines and pushpins a la A Beautiful Mind, one only has to recall that “Batverse” themed Thanksgiving image that made its way into most DC Comics around that time of the year. We were told at the time that pouring over the image would reveal insight into Batman Eternal. Again, had it not been Scott Snyder, I wouldn’t have scoured that damn page like a Where’s Waldo search.
However, it paid off. Over the course of the first issue Batman and Commissioner Gordon are chasing Professor Pyg and one of his henchmen through the subway. Gordon attempts to disarm the cohort, but the bullet merely passes through where the gun should be, hits a transformer, and sets off an explosion whose death toll runs into triple digits. CC footage proves that Gordon attempted to shoot an unarmed man, and he’s promptly brought into custody by GCPD’s Jason Bard, an officer who recently transferred from Detroit at Gordon’s personal behest.
Were you to return to that promo image from November, you’d see that, while partially obscured, Gordon’s wearing cuffs. I’m sure it doesn’t seem that revelatory here, but that minor payoff alone has caused me to return to that picture with every couple issues to revise past suspicions, and, as the issues introduce characters, examine their presence in the picture. Sure, it hasn’t motivated me to start my own evidence board, and begin circling people in photographs with a red Sharpie while muttering, “We need to go deeper,” to myself, but it has proven to be a fun game of sorts, and a testament to Snyder’s plotting talents.
Indeed, prior to issue #2, I was baffled by “Batsgiving’s” seemingly redundant images of an owl (Court of Owls) in a tree, juxtaposed with the rose bushes (Calvin Rose, main character of Talon, and a previous member of the Court of Owls) growing alongside said tree. That is, until Batman properly identified Pyg’s henchmen from the subway as an old low-level associate of Carmine Falcone (who uses the thorny flower as his “calling card”), a crime boss who Gordon and Batman sent packing five years previously. Well, “The Roman” has returned to Gotham City, and is determined, as he tells Mayor Hady, that “it’s our turn to take it back from lunatics like Gordon, the bat, the cat, and that damn thief Cobblepot.”
And thusly, the “big baddie” (at least, seemingly) of Batman Eternal was revealed. Sure, some people are going to be disappointed that Snyder opted to introduce the mobster (who was an integral part of Year One and The Long Halloween) to the “New 52” instead of opting for someone more colorful or sporting powers. Yet I would argue that Falcone is far more threatening than a fair amount of Batman’s rogues gallery.
See, he’s not content with providing “course correction” from the shadows (like the Court of Owls), or stirring things up (to put it mildly) as a demonstration of intellectual prowess, such as “Zero Year’s” Riddler. Nor does Falcone seek to merely “carve out a corner” of Gotham…not when you can have the whole thing, of course. There are no stunts, tricks, riddles, or bombastic monologues of sinister intent with the Roman. Tip of the hat to Fabok on the reveal of Falcone, casting him in menacing shadows, and focusing on the roses (as well as his hands bloodied from squeezing them), not to mention Catwoman’s genuine face of shock upon hearing of his return. THAT is how you end an issue.
However, I’m not really enamored with the other “core” plot thread introduced in Batman Eternal #3, that of Stephanie Brown actually existing within the “New 52.” Yes, we know from the “flash forward” in Batman #28 that she’s a very “in-demand” young lady…to the tune of Selina Kyle keeping her locked up in a night club vault. That’s probably why we’re supposed to care when she visits her dad unannounced, only to discover that daddy’s a more-than-willing participant in C-list super villain poker night…and that he goes by the moniker of “Cluemaster.” Yeesh.
At the conclusion of Snyder’s arc, we’re left with a scenario that rings eerily close to Frank Miller’s Year One: Batman attempts to take on the mob (specifically Carmine Falcone, who made his first appearance in Year One), all the while struggling with a corrupt police force that has shifted its focus from fighting crime, to combating the Bat. Furthermore, while Year One also focused on the recent transfer of incorruptible cop Jim Gordon to Gotham, Batman Eternal has closely followed a similar journey of one Jason Bard from Detroit, who arguably shares our incarcerated Commish’s affinity for justice. Whether it’s a weird series of narrative coincidences, or meant as a fitting homage in a title celebrating Batman’s 75th Anniversary, the similarities are hard to ignore.
Now what of the issues that aren’t Snyder-penned or drawn by Fabok? To put it bluntly: do they even come close to those of Scott and his Jedi Padawan, James? Well, not to totally sidestep the rhetorically self-imposed question, but the comparison’s somewhat analogous to that of apples and oranges.
See, Snydion’s (my amalgamation of co-writers) issues are Batman-centric, further the main plot, and (at least for now) favor a less “out there” art style. Alternatively, the five issues after the opening arc are mostly concerned with following around Batman’s associates, looking into side plots that branch out of the “core” issues, and sport several unconventional artists. So if you happen to restrict your reading to “epic” events surrounding a conventionally cowl’d Bruce Wayne, then this remaining quintet of tales (as well as a sizeable amount of those upcoming) might not be one’s proverbial cup of tea, without even having to crack the spine of any of the issues.
But that’s not to say that they’re incapable of being evaluated. Though, in a futile attempt at brevity, I am going to shoot for less in-depth plot discussion, and more regarding the topics these issues surround, as well as the art that accompanies them. After all, the artists are rotating too, so if you don’t like someone’s stuff, you will be setting eyes upon it again. That being said, Batman Eternal #4, plot-wise, is exceedingly straightforward.
John Layman shows us Barbara Gordon as Batgirl beating Professor Pyg’s henchmen to a porcine pulp. You know, to get revenge for her dad’s (possibly unjust) incarceration. Batman intervenes, because nobody’s quite mastered the “cockblockery of murder” like he has. If we hadn’t already seen Batman making rounds to shout/engage in fisticuffs with each and every member of the “Batfamily” in Batman and Robin last year, perhaps this wouldn’t come across as a “been there, done that” sort of issue.
In addition, we also discover that jail might not be the safest place for a person who was previously employed to fill those cells with warm bodies. Issue #4 is drawn by Dustin Nguyen and inked by Derek Fridolfs, the art team that recently wrapped up their fantastic series, Lil’ Gotham…and it’s probably the biggest departure from Fabok’s visuals amongst those that round out the group. Personally, I love Nguyen’s exaggerated features like Commissioner Gordon’s mustache, and Bab’s minimalist flowing locks, as well as an inescapably chibi art style. Some people will label this as “kiddy.” And that’s their loss.
As for issue #5, we have Tim Drake/Red Robin attempting to discover just what’s making a bunch of kids from the Narrows sick, with Batman convinced that Professor Pyg’s “Dollotron” formula is to blame. Reporter Vicki Vale also heads off to the Narrows, determined to get the inside scoop on the recent “all-out” gang warfare. Of course, these two characters can’t help but run into the only two “impoverished, but not evil” Gothamites from the Narrows readers are familiar with, Cullen Row, and his electronically-inclined sister, Harper.
James Tynion’s script might not be the most compelling of the bunch, but it manages to ask more questions than it answers, closes out on a baffling twist, and demonstrates why Harper Row, nose ring, tasers, and all, is my favorite addition to the “New 52.” Of course, I’m a sucker for any lady with blue-tinged hair, and the ability to resuscitate Batman with not much more than a car battery. However, it was Andy Clarke’s pencils that really grabbed my attention. Unsurprisingly, Clarke has experience drawing the Row siblings, as he’s been tasked with such in the “B-stories” of past Batman issues. His long vertical shading lines call to mind Brian Bolland, a fellow Brit that also was noticed by DC for his work on 2000AD. It adds a dash of realism and humanity to scenes, as well as a bit of deserved grit to Harper’s character.
The last three issues, #6-#8, aren’t much to write home about. Again, based on the sheer output of issues, Batman Eternal can’t be “lights out” every given Wednesday, the way a monthly book can. From a plot-pacing perspective, it’s just not possible, and I’d argue that most readers/consumers of media have come to expect and anticipate lulls/slower-paced issues for a bit of “breathing room.” But issues of this sort still need to build towards payoffs, not reiterate previous plot points or strive to introduce as many characters as possible, to distract from that fact that none of them are actually accomplishing anything, aside from showing up. It’s what I’ve come to know as “Entrourage Syndrome.”
In Batman Eternal #6, Batwing (I correctly took his presence here as a subtle shuffling in anticipation of his self-titled book’s cancellation…and I was RIGHT!) gets his ass beat by a ghost. Batman tells him it’s because he trusts his suit’s sensors too much, and gives a “trust your feelings” chiding that was last delivered during a Death Star Trench run. Batman, of course, beats up the Gentleman Ghost, then meets up with Jim Corrigan, conduit of The Spectre, because, more characters. Yet, not even ethereal entities of justice cannot keep Bruce Wayne from delegating, and he pawns off Jim’s concerns of “bad mojo at Arkham Asylum” on poor Luke Fox… this kid can’t catch a break. Fault Ray Fawkes for the cameo overload, but give the quite underrated Trevor McCarthy a major pat on the back for his ability to draw the entire gamut of hodgepodge tossed into this issue, without any of it seeming glaringly out of place.
This is Eternal #7: Carmine Falcone is great at inciting gang warfare, in case you forgot, to the extent that he blows up the Iceberg Lounge. Totally disappointing read from the usually stellar Tim Seeley, and really lacking visuals from Emanuel Simeoni, who over-shades Batman’s mouth like a massively uneven five o’clock shadow, and has Catwoman coming across more “derpy” than sexy. Not to mention…did Simeoni bother to see how Fabok designed Catwoman’s mask? Simeoni’s got it looking like Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween design. However…we do get an appearance by Penguin’s army of (actual) penguins, and I’m pretty partial to weaponized animals.
Finally, rounding out the bunch is the Layman-penned Batman Eternal #8, which has the fortune of at least featuring the massively underrated pencils of Guillem March. The GCPD, with Jack “in Falcone’s back pocket” Forbes in charge, has allowed for the gang warfare to run unchecked, leaving Batman to clean up the streets all by his lonesome. And, over the course of a lengthy montage, that’s exactly what happens. It’s true that I do enjoy the banter between Harvey Bullock and Jason Bard over how to “creatively interpret” Forbes’ orders to set anybody loose that’d been gift-wrapped by Batman, as well as the Caped Cruasder’s lesson that nobody “traps the Bat.” But that doesn’t ignore the fact that this issue is still an exercise in redundancy, even though March’s fantastic pencils will help one overlook such.
In the end, Batman Eternal is a large investment, there’s no two ways around it. There’s the monetary obligations that come with it, to be sure (to the tune of twelve dollars a month), but for many, the “line in the sand” is pull size. For those that are fortunate enough to view their pull as a naturally growing list (and I hate you) adding four items at once is enough to give one pause. Yet, for those of us that liken our pull to a sports roster, additions can only be made when accompanied by cuts.
Unless you play “fast and loose” with your pull, or have a handful of recently canceled titles or wrapping-up miniseries freeing up space, chances are you don’t have the room. That being said, if you appreciate everything the “Batverse” has to offer (even the obscure, cheesy, and downright silly aspects of it) and don’t mind the circulating team members and art styles, Batman Eternal is a fantastic way to ring in the 75th Anniversary of my favorite costumed vigilante, even if its inconsistencies might drive one “batty.”
It's true that some of the issues since Snyder/Tynion and Fabok's opening arc have felt padded and plodding, and the sheer variety of art styles will have even the most "open-minded" reader staring down something they deem "unappealing" sooner or later. However, for a weekly book with a rotational staff, the level of quality is admirable, and with Snyder at the helm, it undoubtedly has a clear direction.