Last month’s issue ended with the (not very) shocking revelation that Colonel Dick Atcherly’s one-time flying partner, Captain D. “Mutt” Muller, had somehow fused with his dog to become a mutt-faced dog-human hybrid and was now intent on ‘rescuing’ him from a military hospital. This is the hospital in which Atcherly had woken up and been interrogated by two intelligence agents, one of whom was acting very strangely indeed. Of course, Atcherly was only in hospital because his plane had encountered a rogue drone spraying reality-altering gas around the place and become partially cartoonified in the process. (‘Cartoonified’ is now a word. Just go with it.) This being a Garth Ennis comic based on a beloved Hanna-Barbera property, you might expect a somewhat light-hearted approach to things. What was as unexpected as it was welcome, however, was the thoroughly engaging portrayal of the titular characters. All in all, issue 1 was a very enjoyable introduction to the series. The question is… can issue 2 build on that strong start successfully?
Two titles featuring anthropomorphic dogs in one week? There must be something in the water. I have fond memories of Dastardly and Muttley. WWI aviators obsessed with ‘catching that pigeon’ and generally coming a cropper through a combination of bad luck, the pigeon’s ingenuity and their own ineptitude, the duo is popular enough that a DC Hanna-Barbera comic all of their own seems like an inevitability. Not that this is their first outing, mind you. They featured in the astonishingly ill-conceived Wacky Raceland, which, despite some rather tasty Leonardo Manco art, still managed to be a mostly incomprehensible mess. This is better. Much better…
Last month’s opening instalment of this series was big on action, a characterization of Conan that foregrounded his grim humour and mercenary streak, and a Wonder Woman who, divorced from her familiar milieu and suffering amnesia, was cloaked in mystery. There was much to enjoy and I must admit I liked it a great deal. Left with a number of issues to explore, not least the precise nature of this version of Wonder Woman and the intriguing question of how she would get on with a hero like Conan, I awaited the arrival of this second issue with a fair amount of anticipation – and impatience. Was it worth the wait? Let’s 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?
I must admit I’ve been excited about this title ever since it was first announced. As a Wonder Woman fan of many years and a Conan fan for even longer, the prospect of these two iconic characters sharing the printed page was mouth-watering to say the least. That Gail Simone was to be responsible for the script only added to the anticipation. Simone’s understanding of everyone’s favourite Amazon princess is already well-established and her run on Red Sonja is compelling evidence that she can do sword and sorcery with enviable skill. In short, I expected this to be good. Even so, I wasn’t adequately prepared for just how enjoyable and satisfying this first issue was…
Engineering a crossover between two beloved franchises set in markedly different universes is not an easy thing to accomplish. There are, it seems, a couple of ways of doing it. The first, a la the recent Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series, is to provide a clear in-story reason for the coming together of the different franchises; the second, a la the Snyder/Orlando/Rossmo Batman/Shadow series is to avoid addressing the issue, pretend that the two franchises have always been linked and hope no one cares enough to ask too many awkward questions. This series looks like it’s going to be opting for the former approach, although, by the end of the issue, we’ve still not got a full explanation for how Diana ends up in Aquilonia. What we have got, however, is an exceptionally engaging Conan-centric first half of the issue.
The issue starts with a single-page flashback to Conan’s youth, when, attending a meeting of clan leaders with his father, he encounters a warrior woman and Yanna, a younger warrior girl. The younger Conan is visibly struck by her… well, what exactly? She is very pretty, but it’s not her beauty that the narration focuses on but the notion that, to Conan at any rate, she “walk[s] in mystery”. What this means exactly is not clear. There is, perhaps, the hint of something supernatural going on here, but there’s not much time to dwell on this as the action shifts to focus on an older, more cynical Conan. He is about to ride past a group of three Aesir tribesmen who are preparing to burn off the jaw of Kian, a scrawny Aquilonian. Kian’s quick talking manages to persuade Conan to intervene and save him, but his promise of a gold reward for our barbarian hero proves to be a little more speculative than Conan was expecting. Despite finding out that his promised remuneration depends upon the favourable outcome of a bet on a match in the local arena, Conan is content to follow Kian and extract his reward after the fight is over.
It’s worth pointing out that both Simone’s dialogue and Lopresti and Ryan’s artwork are excellent here. Simone presents Conan with a dry sense of humour and a mercenary streak that is entirely in keeping with Howard’s original creation. The fight between Conan and the three Aesir is rendered clearly and the details of the action are appropriately bold and brutal. To cap the whole episode off, when Conan asks the final Aesir why they were preparing to torture Kian, the Aesir uses his dying breath to inform him that Kian had welched on a debt. Conan’s reaction of “Crom” is nicely wry. It seems that the chances of Conan receiving his payment are diminishing by the page.
As Conan and Kian head for Shamar, the Aquilonian city, we get our first look at a certain warrior princess. (No, not that one!) Somehow captured by Dellos the Slaver and compelled to fight in the arena, Diana is nameless and wearing a crude approximation of her normal outfit, including a star daubed (or tattooed) onto the middle of her forehead. While she can’t remember how she got there or who she is, she can remember how to fight and takes on three male opponents in a really rather impressive action sequence.
This, of course, is the match that Kian has bet on and he has, of course, bet on gender stereotypes and come up horribly short. It’s a good thing, then, that Conan, having seen Diana and been reminded of Yanna from his childhood, is too preoccupied with the Amazonian to be angry with Kian for not being able to fulfill his promise of gold. There follows an interesting moment in which Conan and Diana meet and a cliffhanger ending that, given the nature of the story so far, is not especially surprising but nevertheless manages to round off the issue in a satisfying way.
This is an excellent issue for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Lopresti’s art, if perhaps a little too cartoony for some Conan fans’ tastes (he’s no John Buscema, after all), suits this kind of rollicking action yarn perfectly. There’s a wonderful gruesome clarity to the fight sequences and some interesting uses of perspective, too. Outshining the art by some distance is Simone’s script. Not only does she imbue each of the main characters with their own clearly-defined personalities, but also, through her narration and despite the odd misstep (“no amount of rusted valor would penetrate his thuggish cadre of guards” is not the best), she manages to convey a grandeur and insight that adds a welcome depth and complexity to the overall story. The moment when Conan recognizes (or thinks he recognizes Diana) wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact without the narrator repeating a key line from earlier in the book, for example.
As first issues go, this one does its job perfectly: the main characters have met and begun to form some sort of friendship; an antagonist has been clearly identified and an amusing supporting character introduced; key questions have been raised about just how Diana has come to be in the predicament in which we find her during this issue. Satisfyingly, Simone doesn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to explain things to us, instead preferring to concentrate on the exploring the emotional connection between our two leads and that, it seems to me, can only result in a more natural-seeming and involving narrative.
In short, this is a great start to the series. The odd bit of poor writing notwithstanding, this is a thoroughly engaging issue with great characterization that forms the basis of an already intriguing chemistry between our two lead characters. Lopestri and Ryan’s artwork is dynamic and entertaining and there are hooks galore in the form of unanswered questions about Diana and an ending that promises plenty of action next time around. Highly recommended.
Astro City’s longevity is in part due to its creators’ willingness to take risks with its subject matter. In breathing new life into the superhero genre by looking at it from a series of strange, unusual or bizarre perspectives, its writer Kurt Busiek manages to make familiar concepts fresh and archetypal heroes touchingly human. The risk is not so much that Busiek will find himself re-treading old ground, but rather that he might end up looking a bit silly in the process. And nothing says ‘silly’ quite like an anthropomorphic superhero. In this 47th issue of the book’s Vertigo iteration, the focus is on G-Dog, a super-powered melding of human and corgi. So, do we get something akin to the sublime Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew or something closer to the decidedly less impressive Loony Toons/DC crossover specials? There’s only one way to find out…
Actually, we get neither. Busiek and guest artist Mike Norton present us with a tale whose protagonist is Andy, a small-time crook, who is shown doing some pretty morally dubious things, including confiscating someone’s dog in lieu of payment on a debt. That, of course, is how the whole dog-man hybrid thing starts. It isn’t long before Andy is sneaking around in the house of an architect looking for stuff to steal and realizing that the owner of the house had some kind of connection to Honor Guard, Astro City’s version of the Justice League or Avengers. Stealing a nice-looking amulet on a whim, Andy goes back to his humdrum life, but Busiek and Norton make it clear that Andy is forming a bond with Hank, the aforementioned corgi, and that Hank is making Andy a better man as a consequence.
This reformation of Andy’s character undergoes a quantum shift when the amulet Andy had stolen and is now wearing touches Hank and, improbably, the pair undergo a startling canine-human hybridization. Andy is the senior partner in the relationship in that he gets to decide how to use his newfound abilities, while Hank is a disembodied head voicing ‘advice’ in the background, a canine Martin Stein to Andy’s Ronnie Raymond. Hank, however, is a far more powerful influence on Andy than Stein ever was to his Firestorm partner and the magical transformation hastens Andy’s change of character. While Andy initially wants to use his powers to enrich himself, he finds himself reluctant to do so, because the bond he’s already formed with Hank has intensified and he can’t face the corgi’s disappointment.
This is where the name G-Dog comes in. The ‘G’ stands for ‘good’, a call-back to a rather sweet page in which Andy housetrains Hank and plays with him at the park, using the phrases ‘good dog’ and ‘bad dog’ to reinforce his expectations of Hank’s behaviour. Now, it is Hank who is training Andy to fulfill his potential as a superhero. And he does. We see him take down the crime boss to which he owed money in a former life and we see him gaining the solemn approval of The Samaritan and his colleagues in Honor Guard after dispatching a huge monster whose lichen-based powers threaten to destroy much of the city.
It’s all rather heartwarming stuff, rich in pathos and the kind of gentle humour that is rarer than I’d like in comics these days. Just when you think we might drown in a sea of (admittedly well-written) sentimentality, though, Busiek reminds us just how good a comic book writer he is with a final page that threatens to upend everything we thought we knew about our characters and adds a shockingly sudden gravitas to the story. It’s one heck of a cliffhanger and provides a powerful incentive to buy the next issue.
Busiek has been writing comics since I was a kid in the 80s and it’s clear that, just like me, he loves them. I said earlier that this issue could easily have become quite silly, but Busiek adroitly sidesteps some of the more obvious clichés and instead gives us a story whose central relationship is, despite its fantastical nature, utterly believable and incredibly affecting. Norton’s art is clear and conveys both the warmth of that relationship and the dynamism of G-Dog’s heroism beautifully. The subject matter might be a little off-putting to some potential readers, but I found the issue an exceptionally satisfying read.
The issue starts with the kind of ‘Tales of the Green Lantern Corps’ story that used to appear as a back-up strip in the main comic back in the 80s. Except this one ends with neither a neat clever twist nor a moment of poignant heroism. The first three and a bit pages of this issue tell the story of an unnamed female Lantern, naïve and altruistic, who is recruited by the Guardians to take the Universal Ring to the Planet of the Apes Earth. On trying to return to her own space and time, she realises that she has essentially been shafted by the Guardians (why anyone ever thought they were suitable beings to run the universe’s police force, I really don’t know) and decides to do her best to save this Earth from its nuclear-powered self-destructive tendencies. Fairly obviously, she fails and you can’t help feeling sorry for her. In the few panels the writers and artist Barnaby Bagenda give her, she comes across as a noble character. In terms of her function in the story, however, it seems to be only to enable Sinestro to take her Green Lantern ring along with the device that enables it to function in this reality. This section ends with Sinestro becoming a Green Lantern once more (for some reason, the ring is at full charge), which, let’s face it, no one wants to see at this point.
Then, the focus moves to Hal, Zira and her ape friends who are looking for Cornelius and the strange ring that he’s been analysing. Their search is interrupted by the appearance of Ursus’ army, who, demoralized and dishevelled, are fleeing from their battle with Cornelius and his mutant ring-slingers and, thanks to some rather nice Bagenda artwork, look thoroughly traumatized by their experience. Hal eventually meets up with Guy and the other Lanterns who have (just about) survived their encounter with the Reds last issue. Guy gives Hal one of the ring-enabling devices and Hal gratefully ‘lanterns up’. During this conversation, however, it turns out that Zira has disappeared, taking Nova and a couple of other apes with her, to continue the search for Cornelius.
They cross into the Forbidden Zone, encountering exactly the same kind of psychic ‘warnings’ that appear in the second film, and are finally confronted by a red mutant-lantern who attacks them before being warned off by Cornelius.
What follows is kind of touching, although also a bit confusing. When Cornelius first appears to Zira, he is on what appears to be a yellow construct gurney, presumably an indication of the severity of the injuries inflicted on him last issue. When he turns into a Star Sapphire (because he loves Zira and, you know, is pleased to see her), the gurney disappears never to be seen again. There are, however, signs that he is hurting, not least the thin cracks that are appearing on his costume(s) and his hands. I suspect that wearing the universal ring may well have some unpleasant side effects.
There’s a nice bit of conversation between Zira and Cornelius, who grants a universal ring to his beloved. Against her better judgement, she takes it and turns her attention to Ursus who is held captive (and presumably has been prisoner all this time) floating above them. It is at this point that the issue ends with the revelation that Grodd has taken control of the remnants of Ursus’ army and the Red Lanterns have allied themselves with him. I would imagine that we’re all extraordinarily shocked by that. No? Oh, well.
This was a decent enough issue, but, to use a phrase beloved of Weird Science‘s Jim Werner, it’s a lot of set-up. There are props and characters moving all over the stage. They’re dancing around each other for the most part and have yet to interact in any meaningful way. There are, as I see it, four key factions developing here. There’s Hal and the other GLs, of course. Their job is to try and stop Sinestro and (pretty literally) put the Universal Ring back in its box. Then there’s Cornelius, the current wielder of the Universal Ring, intent on bringing about a peaceful utopia through dishing out as many rings as possible to those he deems worthy. There are hints that this is not entirely his own idea. The Universal Ring, remember, does have a desire to reproduce itself. The third faction is Grodd and the Reds, bolstered by Ursus’ army. The Reds want the Universal Ring, too. What Grodd wants is unclear, but I’m guessing that bananas are not as high on the list as Guy seemed to think last issue. I would imagine escape, power and revenge are a bit more prominent. Then, finally, there’s Sinestro who kickstarted this whole thing and, four issues in, still hasn’t got what he wanted but doesn’t seem remotely bothered by that. Next issue is the second to last one, so I’d imagine these different factions will start to come together in interesting and hopefully entertaining ways then. We shall see.
Taken on its own, this issue is a little disappointing. While Bagenda’s art remains very enjoyable and the story is easy enough to follow, its focus is almost entirely on characters meeting other characters and alliances forming and/or changing as a result. That said, I am looking forward to where we’re heading, not least because I want to see what Sinestro’s really up to. This meeting of the Planet of the Apes universe and the Green Lantern one remains intriguing and entertaining enough. I’m fully expecting things to pick up next issue.
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.)
The idea of a crossover series featuring Batman and The Shadow is, on the surface, a no-brainer. The two characters are both alter egos of extraordinarily rich men who deploy an array of resources – both technological and human – to fight crime. Both operate in the shadows, both routinely break the law, and both struggle with their pasts. And both are multi-media properties who have their roots in the pulp era. While Batman has undoubtedly eclipsed The Shadow in popularity, it’s worth remembering that, in the late 30s, The Shadow was appearing in a range of media (including a radio serial starring Orson Welles) and that Batman co-creator Bill Finger has readily acknowledged The Shadow’s influence on the development of the ‘dark knight’. Batman’s debut story, Finger has also admitted, was heavily influenced by a Shadow tale. With all this in mind, seeing The Shadow and Batman work side by side is an intriguing – if not outright mouth-watering – prospect. But that isn’t what we get…
We start the issue with a short one-page scene featuring a meeting between Bruce Wayne and Henri Ducard which takes place at Ducard’s retreat in the French Alps. This turns out to be a framing sequence as we return to their conversation at the issue’s close. Now, Ducard is an interesting character not least because he has a certain history with Bruce/Batman. Perhaps most famous for being played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, Ducard is a decidedly murky figure who had a hand in training Bruce in his pre-Batman days. Whatever his background, it seems Bruce needs his help in unravelling a particularly difficult mystery. The narrative takes us back a week to show us just what that mystery is.
The next page is mostly a very impressive depiction of Arkham Asylum, leaves swirling atmospherically in front of its wrought iron gates. We are shown an unidentified porter doing his rounds handing out food to some of the more famous inmates, although I’m fairly sure he’s going way beyond asylum regulations in giving, for example, Poison Ivy “deep fried tarantula”. As bizarre as this sequence is, it’s entertaining enough and I must confess I did chuckle at Riley Rossmo’s depiction of Maxi Zeus lighting up a light bulb held between his teeth, presumably in an attempt to exercise (and prove) his ‘divinity’. We follow the porter home where he has a promising phone conversation with the man with whom he had a date the previous night. His ability to acquire exotic meals for homicidal lunatics notwithstanding, our nameless porter seems like a nice guy. He has a cute dog in some kind of wheeled harness, he likes Chinese take-out and he might be about to take the next step in a relationship with someone who obviously finds him pretty great. So, of course, he’s going to die on the next page.
And die he does. Again, the art is impressive with a particular focus on the dropped take-out (some kind of prawn dish, it would seem) which is spattered with blood. The statement “I am an honest signal” appears at the bottom of the page, we turn over and now the apartment is a crime scene crawling with cops, who engage in the kind of banter fictional policemen always seem to use when confronted with violent death. Batman shows up; Renee Montoya gives him the room. And I experience the first jolt of uncertainty. Our dead man is Lamont Cranston. Not only is he the first murder victim in this apartment block (that Batman notes this is a bit weird – does he have a scorebook for this kind of thing?), but he’s bearing the name of The Shadow’s real identity. Which can’t be right, can it? Hmmm.
Then Cranston’s killer (or certainly the man whom Batman believes is Cranston’s killer) turns up, a… ahem… ‘shadowy’ figure in a broad-brimmed hat, and he turns out to be, of course… The Shadow. Oh, there are one or two things to say here. The page in which The Shadow is revealed is awesome. Rossmo’s art is poster-worthy here and Batman’s befuddled expression is a perfect reflection of my own when I read this. The pages leading up to that revelation are less wonderful. It is unusual for me to be quite so conflicted about an artist, but in Riley Rossmo’s case it’s impossible not to be. While some of his art is gloriously atmospheric, some of his more mundane panels are too ragged, too impressionistic to follow clearly. There is, to be fair, a very kinetic feel to the fight between Batman and The Shadow, but Rossmo’s decision to draw The Shadow mostly in silhouette in order to delay the revelation of his identity (and, presumably, highlight the character’s supernatural nature) is undermined, not only by the fact that The Shadow possesses one of the most easily identifiable silhouettes in the whole of pulp fiction, but also because it makes the fight too difficult to follow. I’m still not entirely sure if Batman punched The Shadow in the groin. It kind of looks like he did, but who knows? He’s laughing about it afterwards anyway.
Then… there’s the dialogue.
I must admit I had a mixed reaction on seeing this issue’s cover. On the one hand, it is really rather striking. Perhaps that red is a bit too bright, but seeing two tough and resourceful characters together – and particularly The Shadow with both guns blazing – is, well, pretty cool. On the other hand, there are names on that cover that, perhaps a little unfairly, give me pause, chief among them that of Steve Orlando who shares the writing duties with Scott Snyder. I’m not party to the inner workings of DC’s creative processes, but I strongly suspect that this is Snyder’s overall story and Orlando is mostly responsible for dialogue. It certainly reads like it.
Now, I understand that it’s probably foolish to expect entirely naturalistic dialogue from people who go around at night dressed in capes and cowls, but there’s a trend of heroes speaking about themselves in pompous overblown ways that thoroughly annoys me and Orlando indulges in it here. When The Shadow disappears at the end of his inclusive fight, Batman cries out, “Whoever you are, I hope you’re listening. Bats live in the shadows. I’m coming for you.” This all makes Batman seem remarkably weak – and just a little unhinged. I’d much rather have him realise he’s just been confused by The Shadow’s supernatural ability to cloud men’s minds, but I’m perhaps expecting too much here.
That said, some of the dialogue works considerably better. Renee Montoya’s feels very realistic and the writing team are good at evoking character and background very economically at times. At others, though, characters do speak like they’re refugees from a Victorian melodrama with a tendency to pontificate that is both jarring and faintly ludicrous. This includes a very weird-looking bellhop who reads far too much into a disguised Bruce Wayne’s small talk. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The rest of the issue is taken up with Batman – in a variety of guises, including a version of Matches Malone whose moustache amusingly flies off in the middle of a fight – tracking down members of The Shadow’s network of informants and assistants or, in a couple of cases, their descendants. The Shadow, it seems, operated out of Gotham in the 30s (oddly enough, so did Bat… oh, hang on) but there’s no clue as to how he’s still around now. Batman does manage to penetrate The Shadow’s inner sanctum, however, and finds evidence of his grandfather’s involvement with Cranston in the 30s as well as a clue that leads him back to… Ducard. And we end the issue as we began – with a conversation between Ducard and Bruce Wayne which ends in a manner that I suspect the creative team meant to be shocking and dramatic but I found abrupt, confusing and a little anti-climactic.
So, what to make of all this? I’m honestly not sure. In one sense, this is a better story than I might have expected. Rather than a straightforward team-up between the two characters, Snyder and Orlando have chosen to make The Shadow himself the mystery that Batman is determined to solve. That’s a decision whose boldness I can’t help but admire. The problems I have with this issue lie in its execution. While linking The Shadow to an already established character like Ducard is an interesting move, Orlando’s dialogue and Rossmo’s art are both inconsistent and the plotting is a bit lax at times. We never do see Renee Montoya come back from her cigarette break and, once he’s encountered The Shadow, Batman’s investigation of Cranston’s death seems to exclude co-operation with the GCPD entirely. While it’s nice to see Cranston’s love interest Margo Lane again, she yields up important information surprisingly easily. Perhaps she’s hoping that Batman can save him, but that’s by no means clear from the writing.
While I like the central idea, it’s far too early to tell if this will turn out to be a great story. At this early stage, there’s certainly a lot of potential, although I’m not as confident as I’d like to be that the potential will be fulfilled. The mystery around The Shadow’s identity and his links with Henri Ducard are enough to make me interested in reading the next issue, but some of the inconsistencies in both art and writing make me unsure whether I’ll enjoy it all that much when I do.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)