Batman Incorporated Vol 2: Gotham’s Most Wanted (Comic) Review

Batman Incorporated Vol 2: Gotham’s Most Wanted (Comic) Review

After seven years of brilliantly mind-bending work on the caped crusader, this fall marked the end of Grant Morrison’s Batman run. It was a stunning, trippy journey that I’ve written about in detail on this site before. However, the final piece of the DC’s Batman/Grant Morrison legacy was just released in this last Batman Incorporated trade paperback, collecting the final seven issues of Morrison’s run along with a two non-Morrison issues wrapping up the series (well, it’ll be the end until DC releases the inevitable back breaking Grant Morrison Batman Omnibus anyways). It’s a curious trade to read in isolation as it thrusts viewers into the middle of a climax 7 years in the making and would be damn near impossible for any first time reader to pick up and read with any reaction beyond intense confusion. But let’s face it, this release is for fans, and it was one hell of a satisfying finale to one of the strangest and most epic Batman stories ever told.

Summarizing the plot of everything that came before this finale would be pointless. So, I’m not even going to try, and a full-on SPOILER WARNING (all caps) is in effect. Our story kicks off at the inevitable low point before Batman’s final triumphant victory. Talia Al Ghul has finally revealed herself to be the head of Leviathan and has effectively defeated Batman and his international team of Batmen in one swift attack. All that’s left is the final push. First with the harsh, yet inevitable death of the loathed and loved Damien Wayne, then with Batman’s triumphant manbat juice enhanced final assault and Morrison’s final statement on the character. It’s an emotionally intense and action packed ride weaved together as only Morrison can. All the threads dangling in his epic narrative come to a conclusion, and in the end Morrison happily hands the legendary superhero off to Scott Snyder and others to use as they wish.

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Some folks were let down by this ending to Morrison’s Bat-epic, and it’s easy to see why. Morrison has never been an author fond of spoon-feeding his audience, nor does he tend to conform to current comic book trends. Though the tale is as dark and shadowy as any Gotham City adventure should be, it’s also an acid trip fantasy that reclaims the strangest forgotten aspects of Batman’s career. The goal of Morrison’s run was to incorporate everything from Batman’s long comic book history into a single story. Over the course of seven years, Morrison created a tale that presented a Batman who could have started in Frank Miller’s Year One, but also engaged in all the weirdo science fiction stories of the 50s and the giant prop pop art adventures of the Adam West era. The guy even found a psychologically compelling use of Bat-Mite for Gods sakes! By the time Batman Incorporated came along, the title had a double meaning. Not only did it refer to the name of Batman’s international crime-fighting campaign, but also the nature of the character who was at this point in the story a compilation of every Batman ever created.

So, this narrative is dark and twisted, but also surreal and goofy. Humor, adventure, dread, and despair mix to form a unique Bat-cocktail of Morrison’s making. Aided immeasurably by the exaggerated yet gritty art style of Chris Burnham, it’s a Bat-book that looks like no other. Had Morrison delivered this style of story at the start of his Bat-tenure, it would have felt bizarre and out of place. Coming at the end, it feels somewhat perfect and a fond farewell. The death of Damien is of course a stunning and disturbing moment that echoes the death of Jason Todd’s death in the same way that Morrison echoed countless events in Batman’s past throughout his run. It’s the emotional peak of this collection, followed by an action-centric assault on Talia that wraps up all the narrative loose ends and a glorious final issue that offers Morrison’s final statement on everyone’s favorite rodent-loving vigilante. In the end, comics scholar Grant Morrison didn’t deliver a grandiose statement on the nature of Batman like no one had seen before, but instead dedicated his final issue to the ephemeral and legendary nature of the character. His final statement was essentially that there is no final statement to be made. Batman is bigger than any single writer. He is a cultural icon that will continue as long as comic books exist and is all the more powerful for it. Some readers found this ending disappointing and I can see why. However, it’s ultimately the only possible ending for Morrison’s ultimate Batman tale. His point from the start was to incorporate all of Batman’s history into a single story, and so it’s only fitting that he end it all with a passing of the torch (including a couple direct references to Scott Snyder’s current Zero Year run) so that his tale can include all future iterations of Batman as well. It’s simple, yet complex and all Morrison.

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The trade also includes two additional Batman Incorporated issues. One about the Japanese Batman written by artist Chris Burnham to give him more time to draw the final issues, and the Batman Incorporated annual featuring short stories dedicated to all the Batman-style side characters Morrison created (yes, including Bat-Cow… and it’s the best story of the bunch). Ultimately, these stories are afterthoughts that prove there’s no need for the characters’ adventures to continue without the guiding hand of Morrison. The author created all the international Batmen as thought experiments to explore aspects of Batman as part of his overall examination of the superhero. The characters were never meant to stand on their own, and while there is certainly fun to be had in these side stories, they ultimately prove that DC made the right decision to cancel the series after Morrison’s departure. It’s nice that these issues were included for the sake comic book completists (of which there are many). However, you’ll buy this book to wrap up Morrison’s overall Batman narrative, not out of Batman Inc fandom. It’s certainly a must-own for any true Bat- aficionado, but only those who have read and/or collected Morrison’s complete run up to this point. If you haven’t sampled Morrison’s Batman run yet, I can’t recommend it enough, and I’m deeply jealous that you get to experience it for the first time. For me, the journey is officially over. Sniff, Sniff… it’s tough. Morrison, we’ll miss you in the Batcave, but look forward to whatever mind-bending comic book adventures you plan to take us on next.

 

Batman: Death Of The Family (Comic) Review

Batman: Death Of The Family (Comic) Review

Ever since he took over Batman at the start of the New 52, Scott Snyder has been putting on a Batman master class. He didn’t come out of nowhere for the run, having previously delivered the finest non-Grant Morrison-Dick Grayson-Batman story in Black Mirror (not to mention his brilliant and award-winning American Vampire series for Vertigo). However, his modern classic Batman launch series Court Of Owls announced, in no uncertain terms, that there was a new master in the batcave and that our beloved caped crusader was in good hands for the New 52. When it was revealed that Snyder would be delivering his take on the Joker after finishing his Owls run, fans were drooling in anticipation. After all, Joker had been missing from Bat-books for a year at that point, and the character was also missing his face. Thankfully, Snyder delivered. The Death Of The Family cross-franchise event might have been hit-and-miss in a way that diluted its overall impact (see last week’s review of the Joker: Death Of The Family collection for more), but now, in an isolated trade paperback, it’s clear that Snyder’s arc is one of the finest Joker stories ever conceived. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous given that it’s not even a year old, but honestly Snyder’s vicious little story is just that good.

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The tale opens on one of those ominously dark n’ rainy nights where only bad things can happen. Commissioner Gordon even comments on that cliché in the opening monologue… and then all his worst fears come true. The Joker suddenly arrives at the Gotham Central, tells a few bad jokes, kills a few good cops, and leaves with his discarded face. Now sporting a clown-flavored Leatherface ensemble, Joker then starts reenacting some of his earliest crimes. Harley pops up at Ace Chemical wearing the old red hood costume claiming that her puddin’ has changed. The Gotham reservoir once again seems in danger. Then things get personal. Alfred is kidnapped. In pursuit, Batman suddenly runs into Joker on a bridge where he claims that he’s tired of the old games and has something a little more personal planned for Batman this time. He announces on a police radio that the whole Bat-family can hear that he knows every single masked avenger’s true identity, and he plans to come after them all. He does it and saves the best for last and for Batman. Reenacting another Bat-classic, he invites Batman to join him for a private party in Arkham Asylum. You see, the Joker has turned the place into a psychotic theme park dedicated to the relationship between himself and the Caped Crusader. He wants to show Batman how much he loves him and how the Joker and the rest of the rogues gallery of Bat-villains are the Bat’s real family. They make Batman stronger while Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl and the rest just make him weak. The plot is the Joker’s love letter to Batman and his punchline? Well, it’s in the title.

Batman and The Joker are of course the greatest and most popular hero/villain team in comics. Their relationship and duality has been explored so many times and in so many ways by so many great writers, artists, and filmmakers, that it can feel like there’s no more marrow to be sucked from those bones. At least, that’s how it feels until a book like Death Of The Family comes along. The Joker was booted out of the comics for a year not because the fans stopped loving him, but because it was difficult to find things to do with the character, particularly after Heath Ledger’s searing performance in The Dark Knight finally introduced the Joker known only to comic book fans to the masses. With Death Of The Family, DC and Snyder delivered a Joker story that could never be on film, if only because it would be rated a hard R. Snyder came into superhero comics after making a name for himself in horror comics. While plenty of other Bat-tales of the past have taken advantage of the franchise’s gothic potential, Snyder was one of the first writers to bring out the horror elements of Gotham City to their full potential.

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He did it first in Court Of Owls and really does it to the Joker here. The central facemask image is nauseatingly terrifying, instantly replacing any of the character’s camp with full frontal monster movie psychosis. Backed by former Spawn artist Greg Capullo’s stunning visuals, Death Of The Family and its Joker are absolutely terrifying. The rotting facemask is sickening from the start (the way Capullo gradually charts the facemask’s fly-attracting decomposition over the run is gag inducing). Panels are laid out in classic film editing suspense structures that deliver big jolts. Then there’s the Joker’s plot, which involves a live flaming horse, the worst family dinner since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and a living portrait of Batman/Joker adventures painted onto a canvas of prisoners connected by their smiles, limbs, and innards like a human centipede. This is the type of material that could never be in a Batman movie or TV series. This is a story only the comics could tell and Snyder/Capullo revel in that freedom to create a Joker story straight out of Bruce Wayne’s nightmares. On a purely visceral level, it’s a presentation of the Joker that even makes The Killing Joke seem tame, and in an age when the most dominant image of the character in pop culture is the Heath Ledger/Chris Nolan version, it’s exactly what Batman comics needed to remain ahead of the curve.

Beyond the gore and stunning atmosphere, Snyder also crafted a viscous little tale that presents a new side of the Batman/Joker relationship. The story sees the Joker come to Batman out of love. That’s obviously a theme that’s been played in comics since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but Snyder has a unique take involving the Bat family. In his story, Joker claims that the sidekicks make Batman weak, but the villains make him strong. He goes so far as to even suggest that Batman always lets his villains live, not because of a moral code, but because he couldn’t live without them. At the same time, Batman is always willing to let his sidekicks face mortal danger because he secretly doesn’t love them. That’s a pretty twisted take on Batman that somehow no writer had ever touched on before and that Snyder was not only smart enough to acknowledge it, but steeped enough in Batlore to know that the Joker was the only character who would come up with the idea in Gotham. That theme gives Death Of The Family something that adds to the Bat-mythos and makes it more than simply a stunning crafted bit of horror Bat-fiction.

After Death Of The Family, it feels like the Joker has undergone yet another transformation that will flavor the character for years to come. Obviously, there’s the whole “missing face” thing that will play into continuity for at least one more storyline, but more than that, the Joker has now gone to a new level of perversion, psychosis, obsession, and love that writers have to build on from here. The story, art, and ideas hit as hard as any classic Joker yarn, and I’m confident that within a few years it won’t be possible to compile a list of The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told without including Snyder’s effort. It’s also arguably the tightest and most successful Batman story that Snyder has written to date. Court Of Owls petered out a bit towards they end thanks to an overambitious tie-in climax and a questionable plot twist. Black Mirror was great but as a Dick Grayson/Batman story, it’ll always be a second-run arc. Death Of The Family is exciting to read issue-by-issue, fascinating to examine as a collected work, and features some of the finest and most unsettling art Gregg Capullo has ever created.

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Death Of The Family is a little Batman masterpiece, and it only makes sense that Snyder’s finest Batman story would be a Joker tale. After all, a hero is only as strong as his villain, and there’s a case to be made that the Joker is the most fascinating and iconic villain in pop culture. Thank God Snyder will be on Batman for the foreseeable future because he only seems to be getting better at writing this universe and diving deeper in his examination of the mythology with every arc. He’s even promised one more Joker storyline before he leaves Gotham behind. He’s said that Death Of The Family was his Joker story rooted in a love for Batman. The follow up will see the Joker driven by hate. Given how terrifying the love story was, I’m almost scared to read the next one. Obviously, I will though. As good at Snyder is at writing Batman, he’s even better at feeding the Joker’s madness.

Notes on the trade: The brass at DC are clearly as gushy about Death Of The Family as I am and delivered a gorgeous hardcover collection. Capullo’s art has never looked better than on these glossy pages, filled with nightmarish details a monthly printing just can’t provide. The cover is also wonderful. A clear plastic slip over has the Joker’s skin mask as was featured on the first issue of every Death Of The Family arc. However, when you pull the face back on the trade you won’t see a Bat family member underneath, but the Joker’s skinless, scarred face stuck in a rictus grin. It’s a pretty grisly drawing from Capullo and one hell of a cover. It should also be noted that Snyder has actually changed some dialogue from the original printings for the trade. It’s only a few scenes and mostly in the final issue, but hard to miss if you’re looking for it. Essentially, Snyder rewrote some dialogue to make the Joker’s message and the theme of the book more obvious. The new material does clear up some ambiguities, and it reads better as a standalone story as a result. Yet a few pointed exchanges between Bats and the clown are missing from the original printing that I wish were included here somewhere (particularly when Batman maliciously calls his foe “darling”). However, it is an overall improvement and Snyder was right to do it. It just means that completists might want to hang on to their original issues rather than selling them off for the trade.

Joker: Death Of The Family (Comic) Review

Joker: Death Of The Family (Comic) Review

After disappearing for a year and leaving his tattered face on the wall of Arkham Asylum as a goodbye present, the Joker finally returned to Gotham in 2012. Since he’s not just the greatest villain of that franchise but of comic books as a whole, DC decided to make a whole event out of it. For a huge junk of last year, The Joker went after the entire Bat Family in a massive crossover event masterminded by current Bat-guru Scott Snyder. While Snyder’s story was a new masterpiece (see my review of the upcoming Batman: Death Of The Family trade next week for more), the crossover event was a bit of a mixed bag. It’s always nice to see the Joker step up to the forefront, but Snyder’s tale was fairly self-contained and the Joker’s attacks on Batman’s gallery of sidekicks felt incidental to the central narrative. The house writers of each bat book essentially got a chance to weave their own Joker story that loosely tied into Snyder’s. As you’d expect, the results were hit and miss. None of the spin offs lived up to the main story, and as a result the event was considered a minor letdown overall. However, looking at all the Death Of The Family tales again in DC’s gorgeous new trade paperback, it’s clear this event was far from a failure. There were a number of wonderful stories as well as the clunkers. The best approach is probably to look at them all separately since that’s how they were written.

Detective Comics 15-16 Rating: 73

Writer: John Layman

Artists: Jason Fabok and Andy Clark

With Snyder weaving a new classic Joker tale in the issues of Batman, it seemed pointless for John Layman and his Detective Comics team to do the same. So instead they came up with a clever side-story. Detective Comics 15 and 16 instead focused on the effects Joker’s return had on the criminals and citizens of Gotham. Taking a brief break from their ongoing storyline, these issues see gangs painting their faces like clowns to celebrate the Joker’s return as well as a look at how treating the Joker turned an Arkham doctor insane. It’s a clever little story and boasts some nice artwork. Ultimately, though, it adds nothing to the Death Of The Family narrative as a whole. You kind of have to take this story on its own terms, and it is certainly an interesting examination of the Joker’s relationship to Gotham. It just feels like a concept forced into the Detective issues to fill out the event, and it’s not particularly essential to the overall event.

Catwoman 13-14 Rating: 55

Writer: Ann Nocenti

Artist: Rafa Sandoval

deathofgam8From there, the trade moves on to easily the worst arc in the entire event. In a move that feels more like Silver Age Joker silliness than the psychopath at the center of Death Of The Family, the Joker challenges Catwoman to a citywide game of chess. The story is just as silly as it sounds and was clearly created simply so that all Batman-connected titles featured the Joker. The weird thing is that in Snyder’s tale other Batman rogue villains were central and Catwoman easily could have been a part of it. Instead, Ann Nocenti eventually meanders to a finale in which Catwoman declares she has no real loyalty to Batman and is not part of his family. So… probably no need to even write this story in the first place then, right? You may as well skip over this chapter in the trade. There’s little of interest here.

 

Suicide Squad 14-15 Rating: 77

Writer: Adam Glass

Artist: Fernando Dagnino

Finally, three stories into this trade we get to a tale that actually connects to the Death Of The Family arc. Harley Quinn played a small role in Scott Snyder’s narrative and even got her own back-of-issue B-story (which is included as well). Adam Glass expands on that here with a vengeful Joker coming after Harley for her decision to fight for good as part of the Suicide Squad and to take up a new lover without a speckle of clown make-up on his face. The Harley/Joker relationship is of course one of the great twisted love stories in comics, so it’s always nice to see a new chapter. Glass even adds a few intriguing twists their relationship like the Joker’s claims that she is but one of a series of Harleys that he’s had throughout his life. Harley gets some wonderful moments here that continues her redefining arc as part of the Suicide Squad. It’s an interesting tale with some wonderful art from Fernando Danino. Sadly, the whole thing is dragged down by useless side-plots involving the rest of The Suicide Squad and an irritating twist ending, neither of which have much to do with the central Harley tale and seem to be there purely to try and coax new readers into continuing the series after picking up these issues as part of the Death Of The Family arc (a good decision for business, but a bad one for storytelling).

Batgirl 13-16 Rating: 92

Writer: Gale Simone

Artist: Ed Benes, Vincente Cifuentes

deathoffamily3Gale Simone’s Batgirl Joker arc is so good, it justifies the entire crossover event as a whole. It makes sense too. After all, Simone helped transform Batgirl into one of the finest DC books currently on stands and the character has a bit of a history with the Joker thanks to that whole Killing Joke fiasco. The Joker’s return obviously shakes Barbara deeply, and that only worsens when the clown prince of crime makes kidnaps her mother. Why you ask? Well, the Joker is hoping that Barbara will marry him to set the mother free. It’s a sick and twisted little plot that could only come out of this iconic villain’s brain and Simone nails his psychotic voice perfectly. The way Barbara finds the courage to fight back is oddly moving, and the Joker’s plan is suitably sick, even bringing in a fan favorite Gordon family member who Snyder famously reworked in his first Batman arc. Simone’s Joker tale is so strong that it would have been a wonderful run on its own divorced of this series and features some of the more disgusting art of the Joker’s new skin mask in the entire trade paperback. The collection is worth picking up for this story alone (which is probably why it also got its own solo release)

Nightwing 15-16 Rating: 87

Writer: Kyle Higgins

Artist: Eddy Barrows

Kyle Higgins’ Death Of The Family story is just downright harsh. This is by far the most vicious of the tie-in tales and the one with the highest body count. Without getting into spoiler territory, major characters in Higgins’ Nightwing mythology die in the midst of a Joker plot so elaborate, it’s remarkable that even a master criminal like him could have pulled it off in addition to all the other crazy tales in this event. Higgins has a strong grasp of what makes the Joker so frightening, and his unapologetically nasty tale feels very much in line with Snyder’s version of the character. If all the Death Of The Family side stories had been this strong, the whole event would have been a major success. That didn’t happen, but at least there are a couple of great Joker stories in this trade. A deliciously dark tale well worth a read.

Red Hood and The Outlaws 15-16 and Teen Titans 15-16 Rating: 66

Writers: Scott Lobdel and Fabian Nicieza

Artists: Various

deathofthefam7Here’s a weird one: a crossover within a crossover. For whatever reason, the Teen Titans and Red Hood and The Outlaws teams decided to combine their Death Of The Family narratives together. The central premise isn’t bad: The Joker kidnaps the two former Robins together and forces them to fight each other. The execution, on the other hand, is muddled. With the Joker also having to deal with each former Robin’s new crimefighting team, there are just too many characters that the writers struggle to spin at once and in the end this mini-arc feels overstuffed and confusing. Combining the two former Robins and current team leaders was a clever idea, but it also sadly robs the Red Hood writers the chance to write a story drawing deeply on the Death In The Family series in the same way that Gale Simone echoed The Killing Joke in Batgirl. Still, the story has its moments and at least it’s not a complete waste of time like the Catwoman storyline. So that’s something.

Batman And Robin 15-16 Rating: 85

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi

Artist: Patrick Gleason

One of the most underrated runs in the New 52 Batman line has been Peter J. Tomasi’s excellent Batman And Robin series. So it should come as no surprise that he does his Death Of The Family tie-in justice. The story is fairly simple. Robin sets out to find Alfred and ends up kidnapped by the Joker in a zoo where the clown prince of crime enjoys doling out some physical torture and psychological torment. It’s a creepy little tale that feels like part of Snyder’s overall arc rather than a separate Joker story that the writer wanted to tell that got folded into the event like so many other stories in this collection. Patrick Gleason’s art also deserves special mention, it’s a nightmarishly dark vision that features some of the most terrifying images of the Joker in the entire event (particularly when he taunts Robin with his face on upside down and his tongue poking through the eye holes…. eck!). This is what the entire event should have felt like.

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In addition to compiling all of the above storylines, DC included the final issue of Snyder’s Death Of The Family storyline and Batman And Robin 17 as an epilogue. It’s a bit weird that the entire Snyder storyline wasn’t included to make this a definitive collection, but I suppose less books would be sold that way. The final issue is the most appropriate to include since it pays off the cliffhanger at the end of all other Death Of The Family stories and ties together Joker’s ultimate plot involving the Bat Family. It’s weird that early scenes in Snyder’s run that brought the family together and set the story in motion weren’t included, but maybe the collection was getting too large already. Regardless, including this issue highlights the major problem of the event, which is that with few exceptions none of the Death Of The Family side stories had much to do with Snyder’s arc and made his final issue feel a bit anticlimactic because it was so specific to one story rather than the event as a whole. Regardless, Batman 17 was a great issue filled with disturbing revelations and eye-meltingly good art. The inclusion of Tomasi’ Batman And Robin 17 was a nice touch as well. It’s only very loosely connected to the event, but it’s a wonderful standalone issue showing what Batman, Robin, and Alfred dream about at night that should tickle fans and send readers of the collection out with a smile on their face (which is no easy task given all the Joker-flavored horror witnessed in the proceeding pages).

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Overall, this is a big, pretty book that deserved to be released to honor DC’s big ol’ Joker event. The entire collection might have been brought down by some stinker storylines, but Joker fanatics will want to pick it up for the Batgirl, Nightwing, and Batman And Robin arcs alone. All of them were excellent Joker stories that probably would have been considered the best representations the character received in years, were it not for the fact that Scott Snyder was crafting one of the greatest Joker stories ever told at the same time (more on that next week). Joker: Death Of The Family is definitely worth picking up for fans of the character, but don’t judge the entire series on this collection alone. This is more of a companion piece to Snyder’s masterpiece and a nice collection of Joker tales for fans. It’s a shame the whole event couldn’t live up to the twistedly brilliant work being done at the center, but I suppose that was inevitable. Getting this many great Joker yarns at once and complaining that they aren’t all masterpieces may sound a bit greedy. But with the incredibly high standards that Snyder has set for Batman lately, that seems to be a problem that Bat fans are facing as they thumb through the new release rack every week.