|A normal Tuesday in Gotham...|
Oh, I guess I ought to supply some context. Today we are returning to the pages of Batman with issue #636, the second installment of the "Under the Red Hood" story arc. We have mostly the same creative team returning, with Judd Winick writing, Doug Mahnke on pencils, Tom Nguyen on inks, colors by Alex Sinclair, and this time Pat Brosseau providing lettering. Additionally, the cover art was provided by Matt Wagner.
Once again, the art is amazing on the cover, even if I do have some problem with the proportions and perspective. He is dominating one half of the page, Facing and pointing his handgun directly at the reader. The other side of the page features Batman's cowl affixed to the wall with a knife. Below we see the sub-heading "The KING of Gotham City!"
It's striking to say the least, but I can't help but wonder if this is supposed to be seen from the point of view of someone with depth perception issues. The wall is supposed to be behind Black Mask and yet the cowl actually about as close as Black Mask. In fact the cowl looks larger than his own head. Also, his body language is a little off. He seems to be slouching his shoulders, which are at an odd angle, or maybe leaning over with his elbow tucked back but his forearm cheating forward so that it is facing smack center of the page. I can't help but feel like the artistic direction of this cover was changed mid-stream. The arm feels like a hastily inserted afterthought and Batman's cowl feels like an idea that could have been better on a different cover, but here is a bit of a square peg in a round hole.
My biggest problem with the cover however, is that in general I believe that a cover ought to offer the reader a hint at what they are going to see inside a given issue. Yes, Black Mask appears in this issue, but there is no confrontation between Batman and Black Mask. In fact, he very much takes a back seat in this issue. His scene is more or less limited to a discussion with his office manager. Not exactly the most engaging of scenarios, understandably. Considering what other fun things this issue has going on (Batman teaming up with an old friend, a thrilling chase scene, Mr. Freeze-related hijinks), the fact that this cover very falsely advertises what's in store feels like a misdirect and a bit of a cheat.
If you'll recall from last time we checked in on this arc, Batman got into a hissy fit after the events of War Games and kicked every one of his associates out of the Bat Cave and put a moratorium on costumed vigilantes other than himself in Gotham. Oh, and some foreign company bought out the R&D department, cutting off Batman's access to all those wonderful toys. Factor in the fact that a mysterious new figure styling himself as the Red Hood is currently muscling in on current kingpin of crime, Black Mask's territory and Masky has sought out the assistance of chaos gamer-turned-villain, Mr. Freeze to rectify the problem and Batman might have a few problems on his hands.
But like I said before, Batman works alone.
I've only read 2/3 of the preceding story arc, War Games story, but I can tell you it does hinge on a severe breech of trust by one of his allies... that was arguably instigated by Batman denying trust in the first place. It's also a story where Batman pushes his cohorts to the breaking point, particularly Barbara, so I wouldn't be surprised if things were said that couldn't be easily taken back, though presumably will by the next company wide crossover event.
Despite how impersonally he frames it, focusing on Barbara, who still has a larger role as a hero independently of Batman or even the Gotham vigilante scene in general. Whereas, Tim Drake and Cassandra Cain, the current Robin and Batgirl, respectively, both have closer ties to the operation. They were both trained by Batman before they took their mantles (Barbara's Batgirl tenure was far more independent), were explicitly trained to operate in tandem and subordinate to Batman in the field, and have costumed identities that are inherently tethered to the iconography and mythology of Batman.
Although, Batman's inner monologue focuses only on what her absence means to his crime fighting. Because thinking about what it means to have alienated a long-time friend would mean having to deal with emotions and Batman really sucks at them, especially when he can't contextualize them in terms of the mission.
However, Barbara Gordon feels like the right fit for him to focus on because while Tim is probably a more central role as Robin, Barbara has a longer history with Batman, is the only one to have truly suffered loss on account of being part of the heroism machine and managed to come back stronger for it. (Prior to the New 52) Contemporary DC has a much better track record than Marvel about letting its Golden and Silver Age teen characters mature into adulthood and Barbara is about on par with Dick Grayson. No, she slightly edges him out. For not only does Batman acknowledge her as a peer, but she makes him acknowledge him as an equal. I guess that's the benefit of fighting alongside Batman all these years without being ward/adoptive child/primary protege/all of the above. You get to come into your own on your own terms without dealing with Bruce's senior partner/junior partner bullshit.
Now that I have gone off on a Barbara Gordon tangent (it probably won't be the last time on this blog), I really need to get this ship back on course. Like Batman said before. He works alone.
|Understatement: Batman kind of has the tunnel vision thing going on.|
He's clearly trying to reach out to Bruce, not Batman, but Batman turns the most neutral of weather-related small talk into a reason to talk about the criminal element. Dick comments how easily Bruce made the connection between "warm night" and crime, but he has the wherewithal not to point out that his former legal guardian tends to retreat even further than usual into the Batman persona when confronted with trauma and complicated negative emotions.
Both in-universe and from a publication stand-point, Dick has always been a presence who serves to soften Batman's more off-putting traits. He was expressly introduced with the intent to make Batman less intimidating and get more kids reading. Tim was onto something when he said that Batman needs Robin because Dick set a good precedent of Batman's sidekicks being the ones who keep him from getting too dark. Tim was something of a morality pet, Jason was a lost soul in need of saving, Damian tends to accomplish it by completely inverting the dynamic, but Dick Grayson was the Boy Wonder who kept things light He moreso than the other Robins would be the one prone to crack wise and pun during their adventures. He defuses something in Batman that doesn't necessarily make him lighter in tone, but does make him ever so slightly less of a hardass.
|Just like old times...|
|Sassy office banter can only lead to one thing...|
|That being casual murder.|
Mask is amused by this, and calls him "spunky." He's already defending the hiring of an undoubtedly unstable element, citing that Freeze brings down destruction on all sides of him and that includes them, but I think Black Mask is only half listening to him because while he acknowledges that Freeze is a problem, they just need to make sure he is someone else's problem. Of course, you can't fault him for not listening to what Li says, considering he doesn't have ears, as far as I can tell.
I feel like this is Winick's attempt at infusing some humor into the book, but there are some tone issues here that don't quite work. Especially considering just in the previous arc, Black Mask pretty graphically tortured and killed a member of the Bat Family, depicting him as this riff on Dr. Evil complete with a silly plan and unmanageable henchmen seems like a really poor fit.
Li isn't too pleased with this, but also has some information on the new thorn in their side in the red helmet. It almost seems like this is when we're going to check in on our C plot, but instead we check back in with the Bat and the Bird on a docked cargo ship at the harbor, who are easily taking down a small contingent on armed goons in riot gear, interrupting their delivery. Batman's narration tells us something big was coming. Sure enough, it does look like it's about four square meters. I don't know what it is about that crate that makes me wish it was a velociraptor in there, but my knowledge of narrative convention in the DC universe makes me fairly certain it's not. So anything in there can only be a disappointment.
|Batman might be my spirit animal.|
Sidenote: Like Oracle, Nightwing grew up to be one of the linchpins of the DCU, albeit instead of IT prowess, his is due to his ability to form lasting friendships and loyalties. Ma and Pa Grayson must have really taught young Dick how to be a person because he sure didn't pick that up from the brooding Batman or the delightfully sardonic Alfred.
Once all the goons are either knocked out and/or hogtied with gatling wire, they get the crate to the ground and sadly I'm horrible at eyeing up measurements because this thing barely comes up to his waist. My guess is that it it shrunk because having had multiple jobs that involve loading and unloading things on pallets I knew what the dimensions are and they are not lining up. Oh! New theory! This box was inside the box on the pallet. It's like a Russian nesting doll.
Inside they find a vast array of multiple supervillains' accoutrements. Dick jokes about having some new trophies for the cave (actually, that's probably not a joke, just him chattering to make up for Batman's lack of chatter) when suddenly a "BREEEEEEEN' comes from the crate and they know what time it is: Get the hell out of Dodge time! A bomb planted in the crate blows the cargo ship up just in time for them to reach the safety of the dock, wet, albeit unharmed.
|Cue the Benny Hill Theme!|
It seems that the bomb wasn't something they triggered it was set off remotely by a figure whom Batman spots on a nearby warehouse rooftop.
And the art makes no bones about who the star of this issue is. Red Hood is absolutely gangbusters in this scene. Without him having a line of dialogue, the sense of movement and dynamism in his depiction. At one point we see him do a somersault that is downright Kirbyesque. It makes me really feel like this is someone a cut above the usual costumed crook. Also, the Kirby approach to depicting movement shows in a single panel all the nuances of a character's movement by using partially rendered figures for each motion, almost the way
|Simone Biles level skill|
They grappling hook their way up there and begin a wild goose chase over the rooftops of Gotham. Just like the flash forward fight sequence from last time, the chase itself gives the reader a chance to see Red Hood in action. But whereas last time, it was very combat specific, this time we see him in motion. He's acrobatic, and a natural at navigating the rooftops of Gotham, even managing to prevent Batman from snagging him with a batarang snare by slicing the cord before it manages to go taut. Something about him is very familiar to Batman.
|Red Hood is a B.A.M.F.|
Sidebar: the script has the word "taught" instead of "taut." Let that be a lesson to you kids, Spellcheck is your friend, but even friends let you do stupid things if it sounds okay on paper.
They ultimately track Red Hood down crashing down through the overhead windows of a warehouse. Do warehouses actually have overhead windows or is this just a convention of the medium? I will make allowances for Rule of Cool because I know how impressive it looks when heroes descend upon us from above, but I just want to know what to expect if I ever find myself exploring a warehouse.
It's dark inside, but only for a moment until the lights flicker on and Batman and Nightwing find themselves face to face with the real delivery they wanted to obstruct. Except it seems Red Hood has already taken Black Mask's new toy out of the box and wound it up, leaving our heroes to deal with Amazo.
|Did you know steroids work on Androids?|
If Amazo sounds like a very stupid Silver Age name, that's because you have ears and taste. Amazo doesn't really do the character justice, but on the other hand there isn't much to him either. Amazo is an android. Visually, at least in this instance, he resembles Namor the Submariner if he were a 'roided up gym rat. What he's capable is pretty much something that you saw a lot of super teams face in the Silver Age. He's the character who can take on the powers of an entire team of powered superheroes, forcing the team to get creative and show some ingenuity, demonstrating how a group can use their powers in creative ways in order to win the day. However, in case I didn't make it clear, he possesses the super-powered abilities of seven Justice League members. And Batman and Nightwing, highly trained and skilled or not, are baseline humans. This might be a little beyond their ken at the moment. And that's where the issue draws to a close.
So, now that we are two issues in, I'm noticing that this is well written, but a fairly light meal. Maybe it's because I'm typically drawn to very character driven narratives, but I'm not getting a sense of a lot to really sink my teeth into. Granted, usually what I mean by "sink my teeth into" generally means either "deconstruct and analyze" or "heckle mercilessly."
I guess it's part of the problem with decompressed story telling and a protagonist who goes the extra mile to compartmentalize, but I do find it troubling that even when we are in Batman's perspective, he is still a bit too emotionally detached for us to connect with. I think there is a strong temptation when writing Batman to make him just unrealistically adept at all things. I do like this that tendency, but only when it is mitigated by one of two things: The first is to play up the argument that Batman's perfectionist tendencies might be the by-product of being a bit of a psychiatric case. The second would be to show a contrast between what he says and how he acts. One of the narrative functions unique to comics is the ability to line up thoughts and deeds next to each other and create a more nuanced understanding of the character.
The Black Mask and Mr. Freeze story is coming along, but for such significant threats, the writing doesn't seems to be certain whether they are serious or comedic foes. Yes, Mr. Freeze kills at a hat drop, but the fact that Black Mask thinks it's a hoot. I'm all for having fun, comical villains, but I question whether this was the authorial intent. Or whether it earns its place in the narrative. They're not here to move their sub-plot along, just to remind you it exists. I'm honestly wondering how much of their scene we could cut without losing any narrative cohesion. My guess is quite a lot.
Overall, this issue keeps the ball rolling from last issue, albeit slowly. The story definitely took things up a notch with Red Hood, which I am all for. Last issue we saw how he one-ups the criminals, this time we saw just what a wild goose chase he can give our heroes. He's shaping into quite a classic trickster god figure, like Loki, or Hermes, or Malcolm Reynolds.
Next week, we're heading back to Marvel for another installment of mutant dinosaurs, evil cavemen, and girl geniuses in the pages of Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur.