Despite the odd bit of wonky storytelling, the ongoing exploration of the relationship between DC’s most iconic non-powered hero and the pulp giant on which his character is based continues to be an engrossing and, more often than not, entertaining read. In the first series featuring Batman and The Shadow, we saw the pair in Gotham and the mythical environs of Shamba-La. In this, the third issue of their second adventure, we see them in the setting of the boardroom of Wayne Enterprises as they try to make a dent in the nefarious vast criminal empire of the Silent Seven (or, if we’re being honest, two). Batman and The Shadow as vigilantes of the stock market? Alright, then…
My review for the first issue of this Dynamite/DC series ended with a forlorn hope for better things. After an initial issue that attempted to hook me with action and mystery, but instead only managed to alienate me with a confusing in media res opening and dialogue from the Melodrama 101 handbook, I must confess my expectations for this issue were on the low side. Imagine my surprise, then, when this afternoon I read a comic book that not only was reasonably easy to follow but also delivered a bona fide emotional punch to the gut. Yeah, I know. Let me tell you all about it…
A very Merry Christmas to the readers of this blog!
Here’s a festive picture of the DC trinity for you, including Batman in a Santa beard. Hurrah!
This post could quite legitimately be extremely long. I first encountered Kevin Nowlan’s cover work on The New Defenders where he was a semi-regular cover artist throughout the run but particularly in the first year or so of the title. In marked contrast to the more traditional internal art of Don Perlin and Kim DeMulder, Nowlan’s covers possessed a stylish fluidity that was utterly captivating. I’m delighted to say that Nowlan is still illustrating covers today and that means that there’s a heck of a lot of stuff to choose from when putting together this post. There’s plenty of stuff I’ve missed out. Plenty of good stuff. But this is what’s appealed to me…
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)
I must admit, this took me by surprise. After all, it was only last week that the last issue of the first mini-series featuring Batman and The Shadow came out and now, here we are, and there’s a new title to consider. This one has a title that puts The Shadow first, though, and, unlike the previous series, it’s set in New York City which is The Shadow’s stomping ground as opposed to Gotham. There’s no Scott Snyder this time around, with Steve Orlando assuming full responsibility for the writing. Gone, too, is Riley Rossmo’s artwork; artist for this set of issues is Giovanni Timpano whose style isn’t quite so distinctive. The last series finished with Batman and the Shadow having somewhat uneasily worked together to save Shamba-La, although the cost of its salvation was its place in our reality. While the differences between them haven’t been properly reconciled, the two vigilantes had at least managed to come to a working agreement. The stage seemed to have been set for their relationship to develop and change. Let’s see if that’s what we get here…
With no less an organ than The New York Times spoiling the outcome of Batman 50’s wedding issue, I thought it might be an idea to look at one of the preceding issues in an attempt to work out what writer Tom King is doing with the character and what, precisely, is making it so difficult to connect with his stories. In the interests of transparency, I should point out that I’ve not been that much of a regular Batman reader lately. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed the first few arcs of Scott Snyder’s New 52 run and King’s initial I Am Gotham story, which is excellent. The last time I actually bought the comic regularly was back in the 80s with the Moench/Colan/Newton run for which I still harbour considerable affection. Whether this makes me more or less qualified to comment on King’s work here I’ll leave it to you to judge. It’s also worth mentioning that I’m a contributor to the Weird Science DC Comics website and I think it’s fair to say that the site has found King’s run unsatisfactory for some time now. The following is an attempt to understand more clearly what’s going wrong with this series.
This coming together of Batman and one of his more influential antecedents reaches its climax in this issue and there is, in my mind, a fair amount of promise the series now needs to fulfill. So far, we’ve been introduced to the intriguing notion that The Shadow has woven himself into the tapestry of Batman’s personal history as a way of training him up to be his immortal replacement. In The Stag, we’ve also been given a villain whose costume design is genuinely unsettling and whose very nature seems to be up for grabs, a mystery whose answer must surely be revealed in these pages. Last issue left us with several important questions in urgent need of answering. Who is The Stag? Who or what exactly comprises his glowing ‘army’ currently in the process of tearing down Shamba-La, the mystical haven in which The Shadow was born? How will a fatally wounded Batman survive this encounter, much less triumph in it? Will The Shadow and Batman finally reconcile their differences? Which one of them was right about the nature of the universe? Will the Joker start doing something useful? Or meaningful? Will Orlando deploy another plant metaphor? Will the last five months of reading this title have been, after all, worth it?
There really is only one way to find out…
This crossover involving two of the most iconic vigilantes in the history of pulp fiction is drawing to a close and I must say I’ve found the series intriguing and interesting rather than downright exciting. Snyder and Orlando have woven a story that acknowledges Batman’s literary debt to The Shadow, while refusing to smooth over the differences between them. Indeed, their diametrically opposed views on the killing of criminals form the thematic tension at the heart of the story that somehow needs to be resolved if the pair are to succeed in their bid to stop the Stag (along with the Joker) entering Shamba-La, the mystical paradise in which The Shadow was ‘born’. Given how last issue ended, it’s difficult to see how they can complete this particular mission. After all, it’s hard to stop crazed criminals entering a pocket paradise when you’re bleeding out on a slab. Still, this is comics. And there is going to be an issue 6. Let’s keep an open mind, eh?
Well, we’re half way through this pairing of two of popular fiction’s most famous vigilantes (or a quarter of the way through considering the recent announcement of this series’ follow-up mini) and things are heating up nicely. Last issue saw a couple of significant revelations about the nature of The Shadow’s relationship with Batman, and it also left Batman tied up in an underground cavern surrounded by a gathering of his most vicious enemies. (Well, most of them. Where’s Kite Man?) This means we’re probably due a huge fight in this issue, doesn’t it?
Depending on how things turn out with this limited series, it might well be that this issue is seen as a real step up in both impetus and overall quality. It might be that this issue turns out to have significant implications for both Batman and The Shadow for some time to come. At this point, I have no way of knowing for sure. What I do know is that I enjoyed this issue quite a bit more than I did the previous two. Allow me to explain.
In many ways, The Stag is the perfect partner for The Joker. As this issue’s opening couple of pages demonstrate, The Stag has nothing to say beyond his enigmatic catchphrase and The Joker is loquaciousness personified. I know I’ve expressed my disappointment with some of the dialogue in this series, but the introduction of The Joker has seen a marked improvement in its quality. There are still some problems but even the opening pun, weak though it is, is enjoyable. The Joker is, after all, a character you should have fun with if you’re a writer and the Snyder/Orlando combo go to town here and do a pretty decent job of conveying The Joker’s mercurial mania.
The Joker and The Stag, however, are not this issue’s only double act. While you might think that The Batman and The Shadow would be this issue’s other compelling partnership, you’d be mistaken. Batman has The Shadow in chains and imprisoned in an underwater base; he has a brief conversation with him in which The Shadow reveals some interesting information about The Stag (like the fact that he’s descended from Cain – a House of Mystery reference? Hmmm…) and that he’s been ritually murdering ‘good’ people for decades in an effort to get to Shamba-La, the same place in which The Shadow was ‘born’. But Batman doesn’t stick around much after that initial infodump, leaving the Unexpected But Surprisingly Interesting Conversation of The Issue award to go to… The Shadow and Alfred.
Now, this just worked for me. While it is true that Alfred’s tale about his time as an MI6 agent chasing down a fugitive in the Canadian wastes could do with a bit of fleshing out, there is nevertheless a clear sense that Alfred is prepared to accept the more esoteric elements of The Shadow’s story in a way that Batman simply isn’t. Although there is still an occasional niggling problem with the dialogue (“I have never seen pitch as dark as in that place” – black; it really should be pitch as black), there is a gravitas to this section that serves to anchor the book a little more thoroughly in, if not the wider Batman universe, then certainly in the Alfred-Bruce relationship that forms an important pillar of it. That this rather serious conversation is contrasted with The Joker’s more flippant dialogue makes it all the more effective.
When Batman interrupts (almost as if on cue) that conversation, the resultant battle is rather satisfying. Rossmo’s artwork (which hasn’t always impressed this issue) is excellent here, particularly when The Joker starts choking Bats from behind and his vision starts blurring. That confrontation ends badly for Batman and he wakes up bound and surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of his villains.
All this is intercut with that Alfred-Shadow interaction and it is in these pages that the boldness of Snyder and Orlando’s vision for this series is made clear. Now, I know there’s a spoiler warning at the top of this review, and I know that I’ve just told you a fair bit about the plot of this issue, but in the next couple of paragraphs I’m going to get into some nitty-gritty including Easter eggs that have profound implications for the rest of the DC Universe. If you’d rather not read them being imperfectly explored by a raving Englishman, you might be better scrolling down to concluding paragraph, where you’ll find a more general summary of my thoughts. If you’re still here, let’s get stuck in…
During his conversation with Alfred, The Shadow makes clear a number of things that had previously only been hinted at. And goes quite a bit further than that, too. To Alfred’s consternation, The Shadow repeats his claim that he has mentored Batman before. Not only that, but he has done so in a variety of guises. In a way, that he is confiding in Alfred is entirely appropriate. Both of them, it would seem, have adopted a somewhat paternal role to Bruce. The Shadow, however, drops an intriguing and shocking revelation. Bruce is not the only hero whose development and training he has supervised. In a really rather impressive full page, it is revealed that he has trained many other heroes. These include heroes I don’t recognise, but some I do – Green Arrow, Catwoman and the Crimson Fox. Now, that is quite some claim. The notion that The Shadow has been training some of DC’s established heroes to fight against The Stag is, on the one hand, pretty bold and exciting; on the other hand, it does mess about with established continuity to a degree that may well be unacceptable for some.
My own feelings are mixed. I’m prepared to go with it for now. It does raise the stakes for this series and that’s all to the good. I’m just not sure about how this works out in practice. The Shadow tells Alfred that his plan was to raise an “army” to combat The Stag; in the next breath, though, he reveals that each one of his soldiers has been cut down by The Stag before they could complete their training. With Catwoman and Green Arrow included, though, that claim is demonstrably false. It is, to this reader at any rate, a confusing moment in the comic.
The Shadow then reveals that Batman is his last student, before going on to say that Batman is, in fact, The Stag’s final target. There are, I suppose, objections that could be raised here, not least whether Batman qualifies as a ‘good’ man. Commissioner Gordon’s closing monologue in ‘The Dark Knight’ is echoing in my head at this point, though, and The Shadow makes a valid point that, in giving up a “human life to protect others”, Batman has certainly proven himself to be one of “Gotham’s best”.
But there’s one more revelation. And it’s one that ends the issue. Now normally, I don’t like spoiling issue endings, but I need to here. As The Shadow leaves to go and save Batman, he announces that he had been ‘training’ Batman to become the next Shadow, a claim that is so bold as to be almost ludicrous. Coming hot on the heels of all the other things the Shadow has supposedly done in the background of Batman’s history, this seems overly sensationalistic and almost disrespectful to the character. That said, it does suddenly make this series matter in a way that, say, the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series doesn’t.
Where we go from here is unclear. The Shadow will presumably find Batman and rescue him, but, beyond that, I’m not sure. My gut tells me we’re going to end up in Shamba-La by the time issue 6 rolls round and that The Stag’s true nature (and possibly identity) will be revealed at that point. What’s of greater interest now, though, is to what extent The Shadow’s interventions in Batman’s past (and, indeed, in the wider DC Universe) can be regarded as canonical and how exactly his plans for Bruce can be reconciled with what we already know about the character. Getting those answers is something of which I’m much less sure.
In the sense that it has dramatically raised the stakes for Batman and provides some clarity as to what this series is actually about, this issue is an improvement on the first two. That is not to say it is perfect. Rossmo’s art leans towards the sketchy side of things at times and the dialogue, although considerably better, still sometimes lapses into characters talking at rather than to one another with perfectly reasonable questions left unanswered by the people who have the answers but are too enamoured of their own verbal cleverness to give them. That said, some of the dialogue works rather well. The Shadow describing himself as “a glint in the peripheral vison of [Bruce’s] mind’s eye” is rather elegant, for example.
Whether you enjoy this issue will probably depend on how receptive you are to its rather bold central revelations. The plot is more sharply focused than in previous issues and dialogue is, for the most part, clear and accurate and, in some cases, memorable and emotionally engaging. The addition of The Joker is enough to mix things up in terms of plot and action and The Stag remains an enigmatic, interesting villain. In addition, this issue injects a sense of urgency into the narrative and, although the ‘surrounded by villains’ ending might be overkill, the prospect of seeing The Shadow and Batman take them on is appealing. In short, with this issue, this series might just have turned the corner.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)